Thursday, November 8, 2007



"Worthy of my undying regard"
--D'autre fois, calme plat, grand miroir
De mon desespoir.
ONLY the young have such moments. I don't
mean the very young. No. The very young have,
properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege
of early youth to live in advance of its days
in all the beautiful continuity of hope which
knows no pauses and no introspection.
One closes behind one the little gate of mere
boyishness--and enters an enchanted garden. Its
very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the
path has its seduction. And it isn't because it
is an undiscovered country. One knows well
enough that all mankind had streamed that way.
It is the charm of universal experience from which
one expects an uncommon or personal sensation--
a bit of one's own.
One goes on recognizing the landmarks of the
predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard
luck and the good luck together--the kicks and
the halfpence, as the saying is--the picturesque
common lot that holds so many possibilities for
the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes.
One goes on. And the time, too, goes on--till one
perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that
the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.
This is the period of life in which such moments
of which I have spoken are likely to come. What
moments? Why, the moments of boredom, of
weariness, of dissatisfaction. Rash moments.
I mean moments when the still young are inclined
to commit rash actions, such as getting married
suddenly or else throwing up a job for no reason.
This is not a marriage story. It wasn't so bad
as that with me. My action, rash as it was, had
more the character of divorce--almost of desertion.
For no reason on which a sensible person
could put a finger I threw up my job--chucked
my berth--left the ship of which the worst that
could be said was that she was a steamship and
therefore, perhaps, not entitled to that blind
loyalty which. . . . However, it's no use trying
to put a gloss on what even at the time I myself
half suspected to be a caprice.
It was in an Eastern port. She was an Eastern
ship, inasmuch as then she belonged to that port.
She traded among dark islands on a blue reefscarred
sea, with the Red Ensign over the taffrail
and at her masthead a house-flag, also red, but
with a green border and with a white crescent in
it. For an Arab owned her, and a Syed at that.
Hence the green border on the flag. He was the
head of a great House of Straits Arabs, but as
loyal a subject of the complex British Empire as
you could find east of the Suez Canal. World
politics did not trouble him at all, but he had a
great occult power amongst his own people.
It was all one to us who owned the ship. He
had to employ white men in the shipping part of
his business, and many of those he so employed
had never set eyes on him from the first to the
last day. I myself saw him but once, quite
accidentally on a wharf--an old, dark little man
blind in one eye, in a snowy robe and yellow
slippers. He was having his hand severely kissed
by a crowd of Malay pilgrims to whom he had
done some favour, in the way of food and money.
His alms-giving, I have heard, was most extensive,
covering almost the whole Archipelago. For
isn't it said that "The charitable man is the friend
of Allah"?
Excellent (and picturesque) Arab owner, about
whom one needed not to trouble one's head, a
most excellent Scottish ship--for she was that
from the keep up--excellent sea-boat, easy to
keep clean, most handy in every way, and if it
had not been for her internal propulsion, worthy
of any man's love, I cherish to this day a profound
respect for her memory. As to the kind of trade
she was engaged in and the character of my shipmates,
I could not have been happier if I had had
the life and the men made to my order by a
benevolent Enchanter.
And suddenly I left all this. I left it in that,
to us, inconsequential manner in which a bird
flies away from a comfortable branch. It was as
though all unknowing I had heard a whisper or
seen something. Well--perhaps! One day I was
perfectly right and the next everything was gone
--glamour, flavour, interest, contentment--everything.
It was one of these moments, you know.
The green sickness of late youth descended on me
and carried me off. Carried me off that ship, I
We were only four white men on board, with a
large crew of Kalashes and two Malay petty
officers. The Captain stared hard as if wondering
what ailed me. But he was a sailor, and he, too,
had been young at one time. Presently a smile
came to lurk under his thick iron-gray moustache,
and he observed that, of course, if I felt I must
go he couldn't keep me by main force. And it was
arranged that I should be paid off the next morning.
As I was going out of his cabin he added
suddenly, in a peculiar wistful tone, that he hoped
I would find what I was so anxious to go and look
for. A soft, cryptic utterance which seemed to
reach deeper than any diamond-hard tool could
have done. I do believe he understood my case.
But the second engineer attacked me differently.
He was a sturdy young Scot, with a smooth face and
light eyes. His honest red countenance emerged
out of the engine-room companion and then the
whole robust man, with shirt sleeves turned up,
wiping slowly the massive fore-arms with a lump
of cotton-waste. And his light eyes expressed
bitter distaste, as though our friendship had turned
to ashes. He said weightily: "Oh! Aye! I've
been thinking it was about time for you to run
away home and get married to some silly girl."
It was tacitly understood in the port that John
Nieven was a fierce misogynist; and the absurd
character of the sally convinced me that he meant
to be nasty--very nasty--had meant to say the
most crushing thing he could think of. My laugh
sounded deprecatory. Nobody but a friend could
be so angry as that. I became a little crestfallen.
Our chief engineer also took a characteristic view
of my action, but in a kindlier spirit.
He was young, too, but very thin, and with a
mist of fluffy brown beard all round his haggard
face. All day long, at sea or in harbour, he could
be seen walking hastily up and down the afterdeck,
wearing an intense, spiritually rapt expression,
which was caused by a perpetual consciousness
of unpleasant physical sensations in
his internal economy. For he was a confirmed
dyspeptic. His view of my case was very simple.
He said it was nothing but deranged liver. Of
course! He suggested I should stay for another
trip and meantime dose myself with a certain
patent medicine in which his own belief was absolute.
"I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll buy you
two bottles, out of my own pocket. There. I
can't say fairer than that, can I?"
I believe he would have perpetrated the atrocity
(or generosity) at the merest sign of weakening
on my part. By that time, however, I was more
discontented, disgusted, and dogged than ever.
The past eighteen months, so full of new and varied
experience, appeared a dreary, prosaic waste of
days. I felt--how shall I express it?--that there
was no truth to be got out of them.
What truth? I should have been hard put to it to
explain. Probably, if pressed, I would have burst
into tears simply. I was young enough for that.
Next day the Captain and I transacted our business
in the Harbour Office. It was a lofty, big,
cool, white room, where the screened light of day
glowed serenely. Everybody in it--the officials,
the public--were in white. Only the heavy
polished desks gleamed darkly in a central avenue,
and some papers lying on them were blue. Enormous
punkahs sent from on high a gentle draught
through that immaculate interior and upon our
perspiring heads.
The official behind the desk we approached
grinned amiably and kept it up till, in answer to
his perfunctory question, "Sign off and on again?"
my Captain answered, "No! Signing off for good."
And then his grin vanished in sudden solemnity.
He did not look at me again till he handed me my
papers with a sorrowful expression, as if they had
been my passports for Hades.
While I was putting them away he murmured
some question to the Captain, and I heard the
latter answer good-humouredly:
"No. He leaves us to go home."
"Oh!" the other exclaimed, nodding mournfully
over my sad condition.
I didn't know him outside the official building,
but he leaned forward the desk to shake hands
with me, compassionately, as one would with some
poor devil going out to be hanged; and I am afraid
I performed my part ungraciously, in the hardened
manner of an impenitent criminal.
No homeward-bound mail-boat was due for
three or four days. Being now a man without a
ship, and having for a time broken my connection
with the sea--become, in fact, a mere potential
passenger--it would have been more appropriate
perhaps if I had gone to stay at an hotel. There
it was, too, within a stone's throw of the Harbour
Office, low, but somehow palatial, displaying its
white, pillared pavilions surrounded by trim grass
plots. I would have felt a passenger indeed in
there! I gave it a hostile glance and directed my
steps toward the Officers' Sailors' Home.
I walked in the sunshine, disregarding it, and in
the shade of the big trees on the esplanade without
enjoying it. The heat of the tropical East descended
through the leafy boughs, enveloping my
thinly-clad body, clinging to my rebellious discontent,
as if to rob it of its freedom.
The Officers' Home was a large bungalow with
a wide verandah and a curiously suburban-looking
little garden of bushes and a few trees between it
and the street. That institution partook somewhat
of the character of a residential club, but
with a slightly Governmental flavour about it,
because it was administered by the Harbour Office.
Its manager was officially styled Chief Steward.
He was an unhappy, wizened little man, who if put
into a jockey's rig would have looked the part to
perfection. But it was obvious that at some time
or other in his life, in some capacity or other, he
had been connected with the sea. Possibly in the
comprehensive capacity of a failure.
I should have thought his employment a very
easy one, but he used to affirm for some reason or
other that his job would be the death of him some
day. It was rather mysterious. Perhaps everything
naturally was too much trouble for him. He certainly
seemed to hate having people in the house.
On entering it I thought he must be feeling
pleased. It was as still as a tomb. I could see no
one in the living rooms; and the verandah, too,
was empty, except for a man at the far end dozing
prone in a long chair. At the noise of my footsteps
he opened one horribly fish-like eye. He was a
stranger to me. I retreated from there, and crossing
the dining room--a very bare apartment with
a motionless punkah hanging over the centre table
--I knocked at a door labelled in black letters:
"Chief Steward."
The answer to my knock being a vexed and doleful
plaint: "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! What is it
now?" I went in at once.
It was a strange room to find in the tropics.
Twilight and stuffiness reigned in there. The
fellow had hung enormously ample, dusty, cheap
lace curtains over his windows, which were shut.
Piles of cardboard boxes, such as milliners and
dressmakers use in Europe, cumbered the corners;
and by some means he had procured for himself
the sort of furniture that might have come out of
a respectable parlour in the East End of London
--a horsehair sofa, arm-chairs of the same. I
glimpsed grimy antimacassars scattered over that
horrid upholstery, which was awe-inspiring, insomuch
that one could not guess what mysterious
accident, need, or fancy had collected it there.
Its owner had taken off his tunic, and in white
trousers and a thin, short-sleeved singlet prowled
behind the chair-backs nursing his meagre elbows.
An exclamation of dismay escaped him when he
heard that I had come for a stay; but he could not
deny that there were plenty of vacant rooms.
"Very well. Can you give me the one I had
He emitted a faint moan from behind a pile of
cardboard boxes on the table, which might have
contained gloves or handkerchies or neckties. I
wonder what the fellow did keep in them? There
was a smell of decaying coral, or Oriental dust
of zoological speciments in that den of his. I
could only see the top of his head and his unhappy
eyes levelled at me over the barrier.
"It's only for a couple of days," I said, intending
to cheer him up.
"Perhaps you would like to pay in advance?"
he suggested eagerly.
"Certainly not!" I burst out directly I could
speak. "Never heard of such a thing! This is
the most infernal cheek. . . ."
He had seized his head in both hands--a gesture
of despair which checked my indignation.
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Don't fly out like this.
I am asking everybody."
"I don't believe it," I said bluntly.
"Well, I am going to. And if you gentlemen
all agreed to pay in advance I could make Hamilton
pay up, too. He's always turning up ashore
dead broke, and even when he has some money
he won't settle his bills. I don't know what to do
with him. He swears at me and tells me I can't
chuck a white man out into the street here. So if
you only would. . . ."
I was amazed. Incredulous, too. I suspected
the fellow of gratuitous impertinence. I told him
with marked emphasis that I would see him and
Hamilton hanged first, and requested him to conduct
me to my room with no more of his nonsense.
He produced then a key from somewhere and led
the way out of his lair, giving me a vicious sidelong
look in passing.
"Any one I know staying here?" I asked him
before he left my room.
He had recovered his usual pained impatient
tone, and said that Captain Giles was there, back
from a Solo Sea trip. Two other guests were staying
also. He paused. And, of course, Hamilton,
he added.
"Oh, yes! Hamilton," I said, and the miserable
creature took himself off with a final groan.
His impudence still rankled when I came into the
dining room at tiffin time. He was there on duty
overlooking the Chinamen servants. The tiffin
was laid on one end only of the long table, and the
punkah was stirring the hot air lazily--mostly
above a barren waste of polished wood.
We were four around the cloth. The dozing
stranger from the chair was one. Both his eyes
were partly opened now, but they did not seem to
see anything. He was supine. The dignified
person next him, with short side whiskers and a
carefully scraped chin, was, of course, Hamilton.
I have never seen any one so full of dignity for the
station in life Providence had been pleased to
place him in. I had been told that he regarded me
as a rank outsider. He raised not only his eyes,
but his eyebrows as well, at the sound I made
pulling back my chair.
Captain Giles was at the head of the table. I
exchanged a few words of greeting with him and sat
down on his left. Stout and pale, with a great
shiny dome of a bald forehead and prominent
brown eyes, he might have been anything but a
seaman. You would not have been surprised to
learn that he was an architect. To me (I know
how absurd it is) to me he looked like a churchwarden.
He had the appearance of a man from
whom you would expect sound advice, moral
sentiments, with perhaps a platitude or two thrown
in on occasion, not from a desire to dazzle, but
from honest conviction.
Though very well known and appreciated in the
shipping world, he had no regular employment.
He did not want it. He had his own peculiar
position. He was an expert. An expert in--how
shall I say it?--in intricate navigation. He was
supposed to know more about remote and imperfectly
charted parts of the Archipelago than any
man living. His brain must have been a perfect
warehouse of reefs, positions, bearings, images of
headlands, shapes of obscure coasts, aspects of
innumerable islands, desert and otherwise. Any
ship, for instance, bound on a trip to Palawan or
somewhere that way would have Captain Giles on
board, either in temporary command or "to assist
the master." It was said that he had a retaining
fee from a wealthy firm of Chinese steamship
owners, in view of such services. Besides, he was
always ready to relieve any man who wished to
take a spell ashore for a time. No owner was ever
known to object to an arrangement of that sort.
For it seemed to be the established opinion at the
port that Captain Giles was as good as the best, if
not a little better. But in Hamilton's view he was
an "outsider." I believe that for Hamilton the
generalisation "outsider" covered the whole lot of
us; though I suppose that he made some distinctions
in his mind.
I didn't try to make conversation with Captain
Giles, whom I had not seen more than twice in
my life. But, of course, he knew who I was.
After a while, inclining his big shiny head my way,
he addressed me first in his friendly fashion. He
presumed from seeing me there, he said, that I had
come ashore for a couple of days' leave.
He was a low-voiced man. I spoke a little
louder, saying that: No--I had left the ship for
"A free man for a bit," was his comment.
"I suppose I may call myself that--since eleven
o'clock," I said.
Hamilton had stopped eating at the sound of
our voices. He laid down his knife and fork gently,
got up, and muttering something about "this
infernal heat cutting one's appetite," went out of
the room. Almost immediately we heard him
leave the house down the verandah steps.
On this Captain Giles remarked easily that the
fellow had no doubt gone off to look after my old
job. The Chief Steward, who had been leaning
against the wall, brought his face of an unhappy
goat nearer to the table and addressed us dolefully.
His object was to unburden himself of his
eternal grievance against Hamilton. The man
kept him in hot water with the Harbour Office as
to the state of his accounts. He wished to goodness
he would get my job, though in truth what
would it be? Temporary relief at best.
I said: "You needn't worry. He won't get my
job. My successor is on board already."
He was surprised, and I believe his face fell
a little at the news. Captain Giles gave a soft
laugh. We got up and went out on the verandah,
leaving the supine stranger to be dealt with by
the Chinamen. The last thing I saw they had put
a plate with a slice of pine-apple on it before him
and stood back to watch what would happen.
But the experiment seemed a failure. He sat insensible.
It was imparted to me in a low voice by Captain
Giles that this was an officer of some Rajah's yacht
which had come into our port to be dry-docked.
Must have been "seeing life" last night, he added,
wrinkling his nose in an intimate, confidential way
which pleased me vastly. For Captain Giles had
prestige. He was credited with wonderful adventures
and with some mysterious tragedy in his
life. And no man had a word to say against him.
He continued:
"I remember him first coming ashore here some
years ago. Seems only the other day. He was a
nice boy. Oh! these nice boys!"
I could not help laughing aloud. He looked
startled, then joined in the laugh. "No! No!
I didn't mean that," he cried. "What I meant
is that some of them do go soft mighty quick out
Jocularly I suggested the beastly heat as the
first cause. But Captain Giles disclosed himself
possessed of a deeper philosophy. Things out
East were made easy for white men. That was
all right. The difficulty was to go on keeping
white, and some of these nice boys did not know
how. He gave me a searching look, and in a
benevolent, heavy-uncle manner asked point blank:
"Why did you throw up your berth?"
I became angry all of a sudden; for you can
understand how exasperating such a question was
to a man who didn't know. I said to myself that
I ought to shut up that moralist; and to him
aloud I said with challenging politeness:
"Why . . . ? Do you disapprove?"
He was too disconcerted to do more than mutter
confusedly: "I! . . . In a general way.
. . ." and then gave me up. But he retired in
good order, under the cover of a heavily humorous
remark that he, too, was getting soft, and that this
was his time for taking his little siesta--when he
was on shore. "Very bad habit. Very bad
There was a simplicity in the man which would
have disarmed a touchiness even more youthful
than mine. So when next day at tiffin he bent his
head toward me and said that he had met my
late Captain last evening, adding in an undertone:
"He's very sorry you left. He had never had a
mate that suited him so well," I answered him
earnestly, without any affectation, that I certainly
hadn't been so comfortable in any ship or with any
commander in all my sea-going days.
"Well--then," he murmured.
"Haven't you heard, Captain Giles, that I intend
to go home?"
"Yes," he said benevolently. "I have heard
that sort of thing so often before."
"What of that?" I cried. I thought he was the
most dull, unimaginative man I had ever met. I
don't know what more I would have said, but
the much-belated Hamilton came in just then
and took his usual seat. So I dropped into a mumble.
"Anyhow, you shall see it done this time."
Hamilton, beautifully shaved, gave Captain
Giles a curt nod, but didn't even condescend to
raise his eyebrows at me; and when he spoke it was
only to tell the Chief Steward that the food on his
plate wasn't fit to be set before a gentleman. The
individual addressed seemed much too unhappy to
groan. He cast his eyes up to the punkah and
that was all.
Captain Giles and I got up from the table, and
the stranger next to Hamilton followed our example,
manoeuvring himself to his feet with
difficulty. He, poor fellow, not because he was
hungry but I verily believe only to recover his
self-respect, had tried to put some of that unworthy
food into his mouth. But after dropping
his fork twice and generally making a failure of
it, he had sat still with an air of intense mortification
combined with a ghastly glazed stare. Both
Giles and I had avoided looking his way at
On the verandah he stopped short on purpose to
address to us anxiously a long remark which I
failed to understand completely. It sounded like
some horrible unknown language. But when
Captain Giles, after only an instant for reflection,
assured him with homely friendliness, "Aye, to be
sure. You are right there," he appeared very
much gratified indeed, and went away (pretty
straight, too) to seek a distant long chair.
"What was he trying to say?" I asked with
"I don't know. Mustn't be down too much on
a fellow. He's feeling pretty wretched, you may
be sure; and to-morrow he'll feel worse yet."
Judging by the man's appearance it seemed impossible.
I wondered what sort of complicated debauch
had reduced him to that unspeakable condition.
Captain Giles' benevolence was spoiled by
a curious air of complacency which I disliked. I
said with a little laugh:
"Well, he will have you to look after him."
He made a deprecatory gesture, sat down, and
took up a paper. I did the same. The papers
were old and uninteresting, filled up mostly with
dreary stereotyped descriptions of Queen Victoria's
first jubilee celebrations. Probably we should
have quickly fallen into a tropical afternoon doze
if it had not been for Hamilton's voice raised in
the dining room. He was finishing his tiffin there.
The big double doors stood wide open permanently,
and he could not have had any idea how near to the
doorway our chairs were placed. He was heard in
a loud, supercilious tone answering some statement
ventured by the Chief Steward.
"I am not going to be rushed into anything.
They will be glad enough to get a gentleman I
imagine. There is no hurry."
A loud whispering from the Steward succeeded
and then again Hamilton was heard with even
intenser scorn.
"What? That young ass who fancies himself
for having been chief mate with Kent so long?
. . . Preposterous."
Giles and I looked at each other. Kent being
the came of my late commander, Captain Giles'
whisper, "He's talking of you," seemed to me sheer
waste of breath. The Chief Steward must have
stuck to his point, whatever it was, because Hamilton
was heard again more supercilious if possible,
and also very emphatic:
"Rubbish, my good man! One doesn't COMPETE with
a rank outsider like that. There's plenty of time."
Then there were pushing of chairs, footsteps in
the next room, and plaintive expostulations from
the Steward, who was pursuing Hamilton, even out
of doors through the main entrance.
"That's a very insulting sort of man," remarked
Captain Giles--superfluously, I thought. "Very
insulting. You haven't offended him in some way,
have you?"
"Never spoke to him in my life," I said grumpily.
"Can't imagine what he means by competing. He
has been trying for my job after I left--and didn't
get it. But that isn't exactly competition."
Captain Giles balanced his big benevolent head
thoughtfully. "He didn't get it," he repeated
very slowly. "No, not likely either, with Kent.
Kent is no end sorry you left him. He gives you
the name of a good seaman, too."
I flung away the paper I was still holding. I sat
up, I slapped the table with my open palm. I
wanted to know why he would keep harping on
that, my absolutely private affair. It was exasperating,
Captain Giles silenced me by the perfect
equanimity of his gaze. "Nothing to be annoyed
about," he murmured reasonably, with an evident
desire to soothe the childish irritation he had
aroused. And he was really a man of an appearance
so inoffensive that I tried to explain myself
as much as I could. I told him that I did not want
to hear any more about what was past and gone.
It had been very nice while it lasted, but now it
was done with I preferred not to talk about it or
even think about it. I had made up my mind to go
He listened to the whole tirade in a particular
lending-the-ear attitude, as if trying to detect a
false note in it somewhere; then straightened himself
up and appeared to ponder sagaciously over
the matter.
"Yes. You told me you meant to go home.
Anything in view there?"
Instead of telling him that it was none of his
business I said sullenly:
"Nothing that I know of."
I had indeed considered that rather blank side of
the situation I had created for myself by leaving
suddenly my very satisfactory employment. And
I was not very pleased with it. I had it on the tip
of my tongue to say that common sense had nothing
to do with my action, and that therefore it
didn't deserve the interest Captain Giles seemed
to be taking in it. But he was puffing at a short
wooden pipe now, and looked so guileless, dense,
and commonplace, that it seemed hardly worth
while to puzzle him either with truth or sarcasm.
He blew a cloud of smoke, then surprised me
by a very abrupt: "Paid your passage money
Overcome by the shameless pertinacity of a
man to whom it was rather difficult to be rude,
I replied with exaggerated meekness that I had
not done so yet. I thought there would be plenty
of time to do that to-morrow.
And I was about to turn away, withdrawing
my privacy from his fatuous, objectless attempts
to test what sort of stuff it was made of, when he
laid down his pipe in an extremely significant
manner, you know, as if a critical moment had
come, and leaned sideways over the table between
"Oh! You haven't yet!" He dropped his
voice mysteriously. "Well, then I think you
ought to know that there's something going on
I had never in my life felt more detached from
all earthly goings on. Freed from the sea for a
time, I preserved the sailor's consciousness of
complete independence from all land affairs.
How could they concern me? I gazed at Captain
Giles' animation with scorn rather than with
To his obviously preparatory question whether
our Steward had spoken to me that day I said he
hadn't. And what's more he would have had
precious little encouragement if he had tried to.
I didn't want the fellow to speak to me at all.
Unrebuked by my petulance, Captain Giles,
with an air of immense sagacity, began to tell me
a minute tale about a Harbour Office peon. It
was absolutely pointless. A peon was seen walking
that morning on the verandah with a letter
in his hand. It was in an official envelope. As
the habit of these fellows is, he had shown it
to the first white man he came across. That man
was our friend in the arm-chair. He, as I knew,
was not in a state to interest himself in any sublunary
matters. He could only wave the peon
away. The peon then wandered on along the
verandah and came upon Captain Giles, who
was there by an extraordinary chance. . . .
At this point he stopped with a profound look.
The letter, he continued, was addressed to the
Chief Steward. Now what could Captain Ellis,
the Master Attendant, want to write to the
Steward for? The fellow went every morning,
anyhow, to the Harbour Office with his report,
for orders or what not. He hadn't been back
more than an hour before there was an office
peon chasing him with a note. Now what was
that for?
And he began to speculate. It was not for this
--and it could not be for that. As to that other
thing it was unthinkable.
The fatuousness of all this made me stare. If
the man had not been somehow a sympathetic
personality I would have resented it like an insult.
As it was, I felt only sorry for him. Something
remarkably earnest in his gaze prevented
me from laughing in his face. Neither did I
yawn at him. I just stared.
His tone became a shade more mysterious.
Directly the fellow (meaning the Steward) got
that note he rushed for his hat and bolted out of
the house. But it wasn't because the note called
him to the Harbour Office. He didn't go there.
He was not absent long enough for that. He came
darting back in no time, flung his hat away, and
raced about the dining room moaning and slapping
his forehead. All these exciting facts and manifestations
had been observed by Captain Giles.
He had, it seems, been meditating upon them
ever since.
I began to pity him profoundly. And in a
tone which I tried to make as little sarcastic as
possible I said that I was glad he had found
something to occupy his morning hours.
With his disarming simplicity he made me observe,
as if it were a matter of some consequence,
how strange it was that he should have spent
the morning indoors at all. He generally was
out before tiffin, visiting various offices, seeing his
friends in the harbour, and so on. He had felt
out of sorts somewhat on rising. Nothing much.
Just enough to make him feel lazy.
All this with a sustained, holding stare which,
in conjunction with the general inanity of the
discourse, conveyed the impression of mild, dreary
lunacy. And when he hitched his chair a little
and dropped his voice to the low note of mystery,
it flashed upon me that high professional reputation
was not necessarily a guarantee of sound
It never occurred to me then that I didn't
know in what soundness of mind exactly consisted
and what a delicate and, upon the whole,
unimportant matter it was. With some idea of
not hurting his feelings I blinked at him in an
interested manner. But when he proceeded to
ask me mysteriously whether I remembered what
had passed just now between that Steward of
ours and "that man Hamilton," I only grunted
sourly assent and turned away my head.
"Aye. But do you remember every word?" he
insisted tactfully.
"I don't know. It's none of my business," I
snapped out, consigning, moreover, the Steward
and Hamilton aloud to eternal perdition.
I meant to be very energetic and final, but
Captain Giles continued to gaze at me thoughtfully.
Nothing could stop him. He went on to
point out that my personality was involved in
that conversation. When I tried to preserve the
semblance of unconcern he became positively
cruel. I heard what the man had said? Yes?
What did I think of it then?--he wanted to know.
Captain Giles' appearance excluding the suspicion
of mere sly malice, I came to the conclusion
that he was simply the most tactless idiot on earth.
I almost despised myself for the weakness of
attempting to enlighten his common understanding.
I started to explain that I did not think
anything whatever. Hamilton was not worth a
thought. What such an offensive loafer . . .
"Aye! that he is," interjected Captain Giles
. . . thought or said was below any decent
man's contempt, and I did not propose to take
the slightest notice of it.
This attitude seemed to me so simple and obvious
that I was really astonished at Giles giving
no sign of assent. Such perfect stupidity was
almost interesting.
"What would you like me to do?" I asked,
laughing. "I can't start a row with him because
of the opinion he has formed of me. Of course,
I've heard of the contemptuous way he alludes
to me. But he doesn't intrude his contempt on
my notice. He has never expressed it in my
hearing. For even just now he didn't know we
could hear him. I should only make myself
That hopeless Giles went on puffing at his pipe
moodily. All at once his face cleared, and he spoke.
"You missed my point."
"Have I? I am very glad to hear it," I said.
With increasing animation he stated again
that I had missed his point. Entirely. And in a
tone of growing self-conscious complacency he
told me that few things escaped his attention,
and he was rather used to think them out, and
generally from his experience of life and men arrived
at the right conclusion.
This bit of self-praise, of course, fitted excellently
the laborious inanity of the whole conversation.
The whole thing strengthened in me that
obscure feeling of life being but a waste of days,
which, half-unconsciously, had driven me out of
a comfortable berth, away from men I liked, to
flee from the menace of emptiness . . . and
to find inanity at the first turn. Here was a man
of recognized character and achievement disclosed
as an absurd and dreary chatterer. And it was
probably like this everywhere--from east to west,
from the bottom to the top of the social scale.
A great discouragement fell on me. A spiritual
drowsiness. Giles' voice was going on complacently;
the very voice of the universal hollow
conceit. And I was no longer angry with it.
There was nothing original, nothing new, startling,
informing, to expect from the world; no opportunities
to find out something about oneself,
no wisdom to acquire, no fun to enjoy. Everything
was stupid and overrated, even as Captain
Giles was. So be it.
The name of Hamilton suddenly caught my
ear and roused me up.
"I thought we had done with him," I said, with
the greatest possible distaste.
"Yes. But considering what we happened to
hear just now I think you ought to do it."
"Ought to do it?" I sat up bewildered. "Do
Captain Giles confronted me very much surprised.
"Why! Do what I have been advising you to
try. You go and ask the Steward what was there
in that letter from the Harbour Office. Ask him
straight out."
I remained speechless for a time. Here was
something unexpected and original enough to be
altogether incomprehensible. I murmured, astounded:
"But I thought it was Hamilton that you . . ."
"Exactly. Don't you let him. You do what I
tell you. You tackle that Steward. You'll make
him jump, I bet," insisted Captain Giles, waving
his smouldering pipe impressively at me. Then
he took three rapid puffs at it.
His aspect of triumphant acuteness was indescribable.
Yet the man remained a strangely
sympathetic creature. Benevolence radiated from
him ridiculously, mildly, impressively. It was
irritating, too. But I pointed out coldly, as one
who deals with the incomprehensible, that I
didn't see any reason to expose myself to a snub
from the fellow. He was a very unsatisfactory
steward and a miserable wretch besides, but I
would just as soon think of tweaking his nose.
"Tweaking his nose," said Captain Giles in a
scandalized tone. "Much use it would be to
That remark was so irrelevant that one could
make no answer to it. But the sense of the absurdity
was beginning at last to exercise its wellknown
fascination. I felt I must not let the
man talk to me any more. I got up, observing
curtly that he was too much for me--that I
couldn't make him out.
Before I had time to move away he spoke
again in a changed tone of obstinacy and puffing
nervously at his pipe.
"Well--he's a--no account cuss--anyhow.
You just--ask him. That's all."
That new manner impressed me--or rather
made me pause. But sanity asserting its sway
at once I left the verandah after giving him a
mirthless smile. In a few strides I found myself
in the dining room, now cleared and empty. But
during that short time various thoughts occurred
to me, such as: that Giles had been making fun
of me, expecting some amusement at my expense;
that I probably looked silly and gullible; that I
knew very little of life. . . .
The door facing me across the dining room flew
open to my extreme surprise. It was the door
inscribed with the word "Steward" and the man
himself ran out of his stuffy, Philistinish lair in
his absurd, hunted-animal manner, making for the
garden door.
To this day I don't know what made me call
after him. "I say! Wait a minute." Perhaps
it was the sidelong glance he gave me; or possibly
I was yet under the influence of Captain Giles'
mysterious earnestness. Well, it was an impulse
of some sort; an effect of that force somewhere
within our lives which shapes them this way or
that. For if these words had not escaped from my
lips (my will had nothing to do with that) my
existence would, to be sure, have been still a seaman's
existence, but directed on now to me utterly
inconceivable lines.
No. My will had nothing to do with it. Indeed,
no sooner had I made that fateful noise
than I became extremely sorry for it. Had the
man stopped and faced me I would have had to
retire in disorder. For I had no notion to carry
out Captain Giles' idiotic joke, either at my own
expense or at the expense of the Steward.
But here the old human instinct of the chase
came into play. He pretended to be deaf, and I,
without thinking a second about it, dashed along
my own side of the dining table and cut him off
at the very door.
"Why can't you answer when you are spoken
to?" I asked roughly.
He leaned against the lintel of the door. He
looked extremely wretched. Human nature is, I
fear, not very nice right through. There are ugly
spots in it. I found myself growing angry, and
that, I believe, only because my quarry looked
so woe-begone. Miserable beggar!
I went for him without more ado. "I understand
there was an official communication to the
Home from the Harbour Office this morning. Is
that so?"
Instead of telling me to mind my own business,
as he might have done, he began to whine with
an undertone of impudence. He couldn't see me
anywhere this morning. He couldn't be expected
to run all over the town after me.
"Who wants you to?" I cried. And then my
eyes became opened to the inwardness of things
and speeches the triviality of which had been so
baffling and tiresome.
I told him I wanted to know what was in that
letter. My sternness of tone and behaviour was
only half assumed. Curiosity can be a very fierce
sentiment--at times.
He took refuge in a silly, muttering sulkiness.
It was nothing to me, he mumbled. I had told
him I was going home. And since I was going
home he didn't see why he should. . . .
That was the line of his argument, and it was
irrelevant enough to be almost insulting. Insulting
to one's intelligence, I mean.
In that twilight region between youth and
maturity, in which I had my being then, one is
peculiarly sensitive to that kind of insult. I am
afraid my behaviour to the Steward became very
rough indeed. But it wasn't in him to face out
anything or anybody. Drug habit or solitary
tippling, perhaps. And when I forgot myself so
far as to swear at him he broke down and began to
I don't mean to say that he made a great outcry.
It was a cynical shrieking confession, only
faint--piteously faint. It wasn't very coherent
either, but sufficiently so to strike me dumb at first.
I turned my eyes from him in righteous indignation,
and perceived Captain Giles in the verandah
doorway surveying quietly the scene, his
own handiwork, if I may express it in that way.
His smouldering black pipe was very noticeable
in his big, paternal fist. So, too, was the glitter of
his heavy gold watch-chain across the breast of his
white tunic. He exhaled an atmosphere of virtuous
sagacity serene enough for any innocent soul to
fly to confidently. I flew to him.
"You would never believe it," I cried. "It was
a notification that a master is wanted for some
ship. There's a command apparently going about
and this fellow puts the thing in his pocket."
The Steward screamed out in accents of loud
despair: "You will be the death of me!"
The mighty slap he gave his wretched forehead
was very loud, too. But when I turned to look at
him he was no longer there. He had rushed away
somewhere out of sight. This sudden disappearance
made me laugh.
This was the end of the incident--for me.
Captain Giles, however, staring at the place where
the Steward had been, began to haul at his gorgeous
gold chain till at last the watch came up
from the deep pocket like solid truth from a well.
Solemnly he lowered it down again and only then
"Just three o'clock. You will be in time--if
you don't lose any, that is."
"In time for what?" I asked.
"Good Lord! For the Harbour Office. This
must be looked into.
Strictly speaking, he was right. But I've never
had much taste for investigation, for showing
people up and all that no doubt ethically meritorious
kind of work. And my view of the episode
was purely ethical. If any one had to be the death
of the Steward I didn't see why it shouldn't be
Captain Giles himself, a man of age and standing,
and a permanent resident. Whereas, I in comparison,
felt myself a mere bird of passage in that
port. In fact, it might have been said that I had
already broken off my connection. I muttered
that I didn't think--it was nothing to me. . . .
"Nothing!" repeated Captain Giles, giving some
signs of quiet, deliberate indignation. "Kent
warned me you were a peculiar young fellow. You
will tell me next that a command is nothing to you
--and after all the trouble I've taken, too!"
"The trouble!" I murmured, uncomprehending.
What trouble? All I could remember was being
mystified and bored by his conversation for a solid
hour after tiffin. And he called that taking a lot
of trouble.
He was looking at me with a self-complacency
which would have been odious in any other man.
All at once, as if a page of a book had been turned
over disclosing a word which made plain all that
had gone before, I perceived that this matter had
also another than an ethical aspect.
And still I did not move. Captain Giles lost his
patience a little. With an angry puff at his pipe he
turned his back on my hesitation.
But it was not hesitation on my part. I had
been, if I may express myself so, put out of gear
mentally. But as soon as I had convinced myself
that this stale, unprofitable world of my discontent
contained such a thing as a command
to be seized, I recovered my powers of locomotion.
It's a good step from the Officers' Home to the
Harbour Office; but with the magic word "Command"
in my head I found myself suddenly on
the quay as if transported there in the twinkling of
an eye, before a portal of dressed white stone above
a flight of shallow white steps.
All this seemed to glide toward me swiftly. The
whole great roadstead to the right was just a mere
flicker of blue, and the dim cool hall swallowed
me up out of the heat and glare of which I had not
been aware till the very moment I passed in from it.
The broad inner staircase insinuated itself under
my feet somehow. Command is a strong magic.
The first human beings I perceived distinctly since
I had parted with the indignant back of Captain
Giles were the crew of the harbour steam-launch
lounging on the spacious landing about the curtained
archway of the shipping office.
It was there that my buoyancy abandoned me.
The atmosphere of officialdom would kill anything
that breathes the air of human endeavour, would
extinguish hope and fear alike in the supremacy of
paper and ink. I passed heavily under the curtain
which the Malay coxswain of the harbour launch
raised for me. There was nobody in the office
except the clerks, writing in two industrious rows.
But the head Shipping-Master hopped down from
his elevation and hurried along on the thick mats
to meet me in the broad central passage.
He had a Scottish name, but his complexion was
of a rich olive hue, his short beard was jet black,
and his eyes, also black, had a languishing expression.
He asked confidentially:
"You want to see Him?"
All lightness of spirit and body having departed
from me at the touch of officialdom, I looked at
the scribe without animation and asked in my turn
"What do you think? Is it any use?"
"My goodness! He has asked for you twice today."
This emphatic He was the supreme authority,
the Marine Superintendent, the Harbour-Master
--a very great person in the eyes of every single
quill-driver in the room. But that was nothing to
the opinion he had of his own greatness.
Captain Ellis looked upon himself as a sort of
divine (pagan) emanation, the deputy-Neptune for
the circumambient seas. If he did not actually
rule the waves, he pretended to rule the fate of
the mortals whose lives were cast upon the
This uplifting illusion made him inquisitorial
and peremptory. And as his temperament was
choleric there were fellows who were actually afraid
of him. He was redoubtable, not in virtue of his
office, but because of his unwarrantable assumptions.
I had never had anything to do with him
I said: "Oh! He has asked for me twice. Then
perhaps I had better go in."
"You must! You must!"
The Shipping-Master led the way with a mincing
gait around the whole system of desks to a tall and
important-looking door, which he opened with a
deferential action of the arm.
He stepped right in (but without letting go of
the handle) and, after gazing reverently down the
room for a while, beckoned me in by a silent jerk
of the head. Then he slipped out at once and shut
the door after me most delicately.
Three lofty windows gave on the harbour.
There was nothing in them but the dark-blue
sparkling sea and the paler luminous blue of the
sky. My eye caught in the depths and distances
of these blue tones the white speck of some big ship
just arrived and about to anchor in the outer roadstead.
A ship from home--after perhaps ninety
days at sea. There is something touching about a
ship coming in from sea and folding her white
wings for a rest.
The next thing I saw was the top-knot of silver
hair surmounting Captain Ellis' smooth red face,
which would have been apoplectic if it hadn't had
such a fresh appearance.
Our deputy-Neptune had no beard on his chin,
and there was no trident to be seen standing in a
corner anywhere, like an umbrella. But his hand
was holding a pen--the official pen, far mightier
than the sword in making or marring the fortune of
simple toiling men. He was looking over his
shoulder at my advance.
When I had come well within range he saluted
me by a nerve-shattering: "Where have you been
all this time?"
As it was no concern of his I did not take the
slightest notice of the shot. I said simply that I
had heard there was a master needed for some
vessel, and being a sailing-ship man I thought I
would apply. . . .
He interrupted me. "Why! Hang it! YOU are
the right man for that job--if there had been
twenty others after it. But no fear of that. They
are all afraid to catch hold. That's what's the
He was very irritated. I said innocently: "Are
they, sir. I wonder why?"
"Why!" he fumed. "Afraid of the sails.
Afraid of a white crew. Too much trouble. Too
much work. Too long out here. Easy life and
deck-chairs more their mark. Here I sit with the
Consul-General's cable before me, and the only
man fit for the job not to be found anywhere. I
began to think you were funking it, too. . . ."
"I haven't been long getting to the office," I
remarked calmly.
"You have a good name out here, though," he
growled savagely without looking at me.
"I am very glad to hear it from you, sir," I said.
"Yes. But you are not on the spot when you
are wanted. You know you weren't. That steward
of yours wouldn't dare to neglect a message
from this office. Where the devil did you hide
yourself for the best part of the day?"
I only smiled kindly down on him, and he seemed
to recollect himself, and asked me to take a seat. He
explained that the master of a British ship having
died in Bangkok the Consul-General had cabled to
him a request for a competent man to be sent out to
take command.
Apparently, in his mind, I was the man from the
first, though for the looks of the thing the notification
addressed to the Sailors' Home was general.
An agreement had already been prepared. He
gave it to me to read, and when I handed it back to
him with the remark that I accepted its terms, the
deputy-Neptune signed it, stamped it with his own
exalted hand, folded it in four (it was a sheet of
blue foolscap) and presented it to me--a gift of extraordinary
potency, for, as I put it in my pocket,
my head swam a little.
"This is your appointment to the command," he
said with a certain gravity. "An official appointment
binding the owners to conditions which you
have accepted. Now--when will you be ready to
I said I would be ready that very day if necessary.
He caught me at my word with great
alacrity. The steamer Melita was leaving for
Bangkok that evening about seven. He would
request her captain officially to give me a passage
and wait for me till ten o'clock.
Then he rose from his office chair, and I got up,
too. My head swam, there was no doubt about it,
and I felt a certain heaviness of limbs as if they
had grown bigger since I had sat down on that
chair. I made my bow.
A subtle change in Captain Ellis' manner became
perceptible as though he had laid aside the trident
of deputy-Neptune. In reality, it was only his
official pen that he had dropped on getting up.
HE SHOOK hands with me: "Well, there you are, on
your own, appointed officially under my responsibility."
He was actually walking with me to the door.
What a distance off it seemed! I moved like a
man in bonds. But we reached it at last. I opened
it with the sensation of dealing with mere dreamstuff,
and then at the last moment the fellowship
of seamen asserted itself, stronger than the difference
of age and station. It asserted itself in
Captain Ellis' voice.
"Good-bye--and good luck to you," he said so
heartily that I could only give him a grateful
glance. Then I turned and went out, never to see
him again in my life. I had not made three steps
into the outer office when I heard behind my back
a gruff, loud, authoritative voice, the voice of our
It was addressing the head Shipping-Master
who, having let me in, had, apparently, remained
hovering in the middle distance ever since
"Mr. R., let the harbour launch have steam up to
take the captain here on board the Melita at halfpast
nine to-night."
I was amazed at the startled alacrity of R's
"Yes, sir." He ran before me out on the landing.
My new dignity sat yet so lightly on me that I was
not aware that it was I, the Captain, the object of
this last graciousness. It seemed as if all of a sudden
a pair of wings had grown on my shoulders. I
merely skimmed along the polished floor.
But R. was impressed.
"I say!" he exclaimed on the landing, while the
Malay crew of the steam-launch standing by looked
stonily at the man for whom they were going to be
kept on duty so late, away from their gambling,
from their girls, or their pure domestic joys. "I
say! His own launch. What have you done to
His stare was full of respectful curiosity. I was
quite confounded.
"Was it for me? I hadn't the slightest notion,"
I stammered out.
He nodded many times. "Yes. And the last
person who had it before you was a Duke. So,
I think he expected me to faint on the spot.
But I was in too much of a hurry for emotional
displays. My feelings were already in such a whirl
that this staggering information did not seem to
make the slightest difference. It merely fell into
the seething cauldron of my brain, and I carried it
off with me after a short but effusive passage of
leave-taking with R.
The favour of the great throws an aureole round
the fortunate object of its selection. That excellent
man enquired whether he could do anything
for me. He had known me only by sight, and he
was well aware he would never see me again; I was,
in common with the other seamen of the port,
merely a subject for official writing, filling up of
forms with all the artificial superiority of a man of
pen and ink to the men who grapple with realities
outside the consecrated walls of official buildings.
What ghosts we must have been to him! Mere
symbols to juggle with in books and heavy
registers, without brains and muscles and perplexities;
something hardly useful and decidedly
And he--the office hours being over--wanted to
know if he could be of any use to me!
I ought--properly speaking--I ought to have
been moved to tears. But I did not even think of it.
It was merely another miraculous manifestation of
that day of miracles. I parted from him as if he
were a mere symbol. I floated down the staircase.
I floated out of the official and imposing portal. I
went on floating along.
I use that word rather than the word "flew," because
I have a distinct impression that, though uplifted
by my aroused youth, my movements were
deliberate enough. To that mixed white, brown,
and yellow portion of mankind, out abroad on their
own affairs, I presented the appearance of a man
walking rather sedately. And nothing in the way
of abstraction could have equalled my deep detachment
from the forms and colours of this world.
It was, as it were, final.
And yet, suddenly, I recognized Hamilton. I
recognized him without effort, without a shock,
without a start. There he was, strolling toward
the Harbour Office with his stiff, arrogant dignity.
His red face made him noticeable at a distance. It
flamed, over there, on the shady side of the street.
He had perceived me, too. Something (unconscious
exuberance of spirits perhaps) moved me to
wave my hand to him elaborately. This lapse
from good taste happened before I was aware that
I was capable of it.
The impact of my impudence stopped him short,
much as a bullet might have done. I verily believe
he staggered, though as far as I could see he didn't
actually fall. I had gone past in a moment and did
not turn my head. I had forgotten his existence.
The next ten minutes might have been ten
seconds or ten centuries for all my consciousness
had to do with it. People might have been falling
dead around me, houses crumbling, guns firing,
I wouldn't have known. I was thinking: "By
Jove! I have got it." IT being the command. It
had come about in a way utterly unforeseen in my
modest day-dreams.
I perceived that my imagination had been running
in conventional channels and that my hopes
had always been drab stuff. I had envisaged a
command as a result of a slow course of promotion
in the employ of some highly respectable firm.
The reward of faithful service. Well, faithful
service was all right. One would naturally give
that for one's own sake, for the sake of the ship,
for the love of the life of one's choice; not for the
sake of the reward.
There is something distasteful in the notion of a
And now here I had my command, absolutely in
my pocket, in a way undeniable indeed, but most
unexpected; beyond my imaginings, outside all
reasonable expectations, and even notwithstanding
the existence of some sort of obscure intrigue to
keep it away from me. It is true that the intrigue
was feeble, but it helped the feeling of wonder--as
if I had been specially destined for that ship I did
not know, by some power higher than the prosaic
agencies of the commercial world.
A strange sense of exultation began to creep into
me. If I had worked for that command ten years
or more there would have been nothing of the kind.
I was a little frightened.
"Let us be calm," I said to myself.
Outside the door of the Officers' Home the
wretched Steward seemed to be waiting for me.
There was a broad flight of a few steps, and he ran
to and fro on the top of it as if chained there. A
distressed cur. He looked as though his throat
were too dry for him to bark.
I regret to say I stopped before going in. There
had been a revolution in my moral nature. He
waited open-mouthed, breathless, while I looked
at him for half a minute.
"And you thought you could keep me out of it,"
I said scathingly.
"You said you were going home," he squeaked
miserably. "You said so. You said so."
"I wonder what Captain Ellis will have to say
to that excuse," I uttered slowly with a sinister
His lower jaw had been trembling all the time and
his voice was like the bleating of a sick goat. "You
have given me away? You have done for me?"
Neither his distress nor yet the sheer absurdity
of it was able to disarm me. It was the first instance
of harm being attempted to be done to me
--at any rate, the first I had ever found out. And
I was still young enough, still too much on this side
of the shadow line, not to be surprised and indignant
at such things.
I gazed at him inflexibly. Let the beggar suffer.
He slapped his forehead and I passed in, pursued,
into the dining room, by his screech: "I always
said you'd be the death of me."
This clamour not only overtook me, but went
ahead as it were on to the verandah and brought
out Captain Giles.
He stood before me in the doorway in all the
commonplace solidity of his wisdom. The gold
chain glittered on his breast. He clutched a
smouldering pipe.
I extended my hand to him warmly and he
seemed surprised, but did respond heartily enough
in the end, with a faint smile of superior knowledge
which cut my thanks short as if with a knife. I
don't think that more than one word came out.
And even for that one, judging by the temperature
of my face, I had blushed as if for a bad action.
Assuming a detached tone, I wondered how on
earth he had managed to spot the little underhand
game that had been going on.
He murmured complacently that there were but
few things done in the town that he could not see
the inside of. And as to this house, he had been
using it off and on for nearly ten years. Nothing
that went on in it could escape his great experience.
It had been no trouble to him. No trouble at all.
Then in his quiet, thick tone he wanted to know
if I had complained formally of the Steward's
I said that I hadn't--though, indeed, it was not
for want of opportunity. Captain Ellis had gone
for me bald-headed in a most ridiculous fashion for
being out of the way when wanted.
"Funny old gentleman," interjected Captain
Giles. "What did you say to that?"
"I said simply that I came along the very moment
I heard of his message. Nothing more. I
didn't want to hurt the Steward. I would scorn
to harm such an object. No. I made no complaint,
but I believe he thinks I've done so. Let
him think. He's got a fright he won't forget in a
hurry, for Captain Ellis would kick him out into
the middle of Asia. . . ."
"Wait a moment," said Captain Giles, leaving
me suddenly. I sat down feeling very tired,
mostly in my head. Before I could start a train of
thought he stood again before me, murmuring the
excuse that he had to go and put the fellow's mind
at ease.
I looked up with surprise. But in reality I was
indifferent. He explained that he had found the
Steward lying face downward on the horsehair sofa.
He was all right now.
"He would not have died of fright," I said contemptuously.
"No. But he might have taken an overdose out
of one of them little bottles he keeps in his room,"
Captain Giles argued seriously. "The confounded
fool has tried to poison himself once--a few years
"Really," I said without emotion. "He doesn't
seem very fit to live, anyhow."
"As to that, it may be said of a good many."
"Don't exaggerate like this!" I protested,
laughing irritably. "But I wonder what this part
of the world would do if you were to leave off looking
after it, Captain Giles? Here you have got me
a command and saved the Steward's life in one
afternoon. Though why you should have taken all
that interest in either of us is more than I can
Captain Giles remained silent for a minute.
Then gravely:
"He's not a bad steward really. He can find a
good cook, at any rate. And, what's more, he can
keep him when found. I remember the cooks we
had here before his time! . . ."
I must have made a movement of impatience,
because he interrupted himself with an apology for
keeping me yarning there, while no doubt I needed
all my time to get ready.
What I really needed was to be alone for a bit.
I seized this opening hastily. My bedroom was a
quiet refuge in an apparently uninhabited wing of
the building. Having absolutely nothing to do
(for I had not unpacked my things), I sat down on
the bed and abandoned myself to the influences of
the hour. To the unexpected influences. . . .
And first I wondered at my state of mind. Why
was I not more surprised? Why? Here I was, invested
with a command in the twinkling of an eye,
not in the common course of human affairs, but
more as if by enchantment. I ought to have been
lost in astonishment. But I wasn't. I was very
much like people in fairy tales. Nothing ever
astonishes them. When a fully appointed gala
coach is produced out of a pumpkin to take
her to a ball, Cinderella does not exclaim. She
gets in quietly and drives away to her high fortune.
Captain Ellis (a fierce sort of fairy) had produced
a command out of a drawer almost as unexpectedly
as in a fairy tale. But a command is an
abstract idea, and it seemed a sort of "lesser
marvel" till it flashed upon me that it involved the
concrete existence of a ship.
A ship! My ship! She was mine, more absolutely
mine for possession and care than anything
in the world; an object of responsibility and devotion.
She was there waiting for me, spell-bound,
unable to move, to live, to get out into the world
(till I came), like an enchanted princess. Her call
had come to me as if from the clouds. I had never
suspected her existence. I didn't know how she
looked, I had barely heard her name, and yet we
were indissolubly united for a certain portion of our
future, to sink or swim together!
A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed
through my veins, gave me such a sense of the intensity
of existence as I have never felt before or
since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was,
in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically--a
man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only
world that counted, and the ships, the test of manliness,
of temperament, of courage and fidelity--
and of love.
I had an exquisite moment. It was unique also.
Jumping up from my seat, I paced up and down
my room for a long time. But when I came downstairs
I behaved with sufficient composure. I
only couldn't eat anything at dinner.
Having declared my intention not to drive but
to walk down to the quay, I must render the
wretched Steward justice that he bestirred himself
to find me some coolies for the luggage. They departed,
carrying all my worldly possessions (except
a little money I had in my pocket) slung from a long
pole. Captain Giles volunteered to walk down
with me.
We followed the sombre, shaded alley across the
Esplanade. It was moderately cool there under
the trees. Captain Giles remarked, with a sudden
laugh: "I know who's jolly thankful at having seen
the last of you."
I guessed that he meant the Steward. The fellow
had borne himself to me in a sulkily frightened
manner at the last. I expressed my wonder that
he should have tried to do me a bad turn for no
reason at all.
"Don't you see that what he wanted was to get
rid of our friend Hamilton by dodging him in front
of you for that job? That would have removed
him for good. See?"
"Heavens!" I exclaimed, feeling humiliated
somehow. "Can it be possible? What a fool he
must be! That overbearing, impudent loafer!
Why! He couldn't. . . . And yet he's nearly
done it, I believe; for the Harbour Office was bound
to send somebody."
"Aye. A fool like our Steward can be dangerous
sometimes," declared Captain Giles sententiously.
"Just because he is a fool," he added, imparting
further instruction in his complacent low tones.
"For," he continued in the manner of a set demonstration,
"no sensible person would risk being
kicked out of the only berth between himself and
starvation just to get rid of a simple annoyance--
a small worry. Would he now?"
"Well, no," I conceded, restraining a desire to
laugh at that something mysteriously earnest in
delivering the conclusions of his wisdom as though
it were the product of prohibited operations. "But
that fellow looks as if he were rather crazy. He
must be."
"As to that, I believe everybody in the world is a
little mad," he announced quietly.
"You make no exceptions?" I inquired, just to
hear his manner.
"Why! Kent says that even of you."
"Does he?" I retorted, extremely embittered
all at once against my former captain. "There's
nothing of that in the written character from him
which I've got in my pocket. Has he given you
any instances of my lunacy?"
Captain Giles explained in a conciliating tone
that it had been only a friendly remark in reference
to my abrupt leaving the ship for no apparent
I muttered grumpily: "Oh! leaving his ship,"
and mended my pace. He kept up by my side in
the deep gloom of the avenue as if it were his conscientious
duty to see me out of the colony as an
undesirable character. He panted a little, which
was rather pathetic in a way. But I was not
moved. On the contrary. His discomfort gave
me a sort of malicious pleasure.
Presently I relented, slowed down, and said:
"What I really wanted was to get a fresh grip.
I felt it was time. Is that so very mad?"
He made no answer. We were issuing from the
avenue. On the bridge over the canal a dark, irresolute
figure seemed to be awaiting something or
It was a Malay policeman, barefooted, in his
blue uniform. The silver band on his little round
cap shone dimly in the light of the street lamp. He
peered in our direction timidly.
Before we could come up to him he turned about
and walked in front of us in the direction of the
jetty. The distance was some hundred yards; and
then I found my coolies squatting on their heels.
They had kept the pole on their shoulders, and all
my worldly goods, still tied to the pole, were resting
on the ground between them. As far as the eye
could reach along the quay there was not another
soul abroad except the police peon, who saluted us.
It seems he had detained the coolies as suspicious
characters, and had forbidden them the jetty. But
at a sign from me he took off the embargo with
alacrity. The two patient fellows, rising together
with a faint grunt, trotted off along the planks, and
I prepared to take my leave of Captain Giles, who
stood there with an air as though his mission were
drawing to a close. It could not be denied that he
had done it all. And while I hesitated about an
appropriate sentence he made himself heard:
"I expect you'll have your hands pretty full of
tangled-up business."
I asked him what made him think so; and he answered
that it was his general experience of the
world. Ship a long time away from her port,
owners inaccessible by cable, and the only man who
could explain matters dead and buried.
"And you yourself new to the business in a way,"
he concluded in a sort of unanswerable tone.
"Don't insist," I said. "I know it only too well.
I only wish you could impart to me some small
portion of your experience before I go. As it can't
be done in ten minutes I had better not begin to ask
you. There's that harbour launch waiting for me,
too. But I won't feel really at peace till I have that
ship of mine out in the Indian Ocean."
He remarked casually that from Bangkok to the
Indian Ocean was a pretty long step. And this
murmur, like a dim flash from a dark lantern,
showed me for a moment the broad belt of islands
and reefs between that unknown ship, which was
mine, and the freedom of the great waters of the
But I felt no apprehension. I was familiar
enough with the Archipelago by that time. Extreme
patience and extreme care would see me
through the region of broken land, of faint airs, and
of dead water to where I would feel at last my
command swing on the great swell and list over to
the great breath of regular winds, that would give
her the feeling of a large, more intense life. The
road would be long. All roads are long that lead
toward one's heart's desire. But this road my
mind's eye could see on a chart, professionally,
with all its complications and difficulties, yet simple
enough in a way. One is a seaman or one is not.
And I had no doubt of being one.
The only part I was a stranger to was the Gulf of
Siam. And I mentioned this to Captain Giles.
Not that I was concerned very much. It belonged
to the same region the nature of which I knew, into
whose very soul I seemed to have looked during the
last months of that existence with which I had
broken now, suddenly, as one parts with some enchanting
"The gulf . . . Ay! A funny piece of
water--that," said Captain Giles.
Funny, in this connection, was a vague word.
The whole thing sounded like an opinion uttered
by a cautious person mindful of actions for slander.
I didn't inquire as to the nature of that funniness.
There was really no time. But at the very
last he volunteered a warning.
"Whatever you do keep to the east side of it.
The west side is dangerous at this time of the year.
Don't let anything tempt you over. You'll find
nothing but trouble there."
Though I could hardly imagine what could tempt
me to involve my ship amongst the currents and
reefs of the Malay shore, I thanked him for the
He gripped my extended arm warmly, and the
end of our acquaintance came suddenly in the
words: "Good-night."
That was all he said: "Good-night." Nothing
more. I don't know what I intended to say, but
surprise made me swallow it, whatever it was. I
choked slightly, and then exclaimed with a sort of
nervous haste: "Oh! Good-night, Captain Giles,
His movements were always deliberate, but his
back had receded some distance along the deserted
quay before I collected myself enough to follow his
example and made a half turn in the direction of
the jetty.
Only my movements were not deliberate. I
hurried down to the steps, and leaped into the
launch. Before I had fairly landed in her sternsheets
the slim little craft darted away from the
jetty with a sudden swirl of her propeller and the
hard, rapid puffing of the exhaust in her vaguely
gleaming brass funnel amidships.
The misty churning at her stern was the only
sound in the world. The shore lay plunged in the
silence of the deeper slumber. I watched the town
recede still and soundless in the hot night, till the
abrupt hail, "Steam-launch, ahoy!" made me spin
round face forward. We were close to a white
ghostly steamer. Lights shone on her decks, in her
portholes. And the same voice shouted from her:
"Is that our passenger?"
"It is," I yelled.
Her crew had been obviously on the jump. I
could hear them running about. The modern
spirit of haste was loudly vocal in the orders to
"Heave away on the cable"--to "Lower the sideladder,"
and in urgent requests to me to "Come
along, sir! We have been delayed three hours for
you. . . . Our time is seven o'clock, you know!"
I stepped on the deck. I said "No! I don't
know." The spirit of modern hurry was embodied
in a thin, long-armed, long-legged man, with a
closely clipped gray beard. His meagre hand was
hot and dry. He declared feverishly:
"I am hanged if I would have waited another
five minutes Harbour-Master or no Harbour-
"That's your own business," I said. "I didn't
ask you to wait for me."
"I hope you don't expect any supper," he burst
out. "This isn't a boarding-house afloat. You are
the first passenger I ever had in my life and I hope
to goodness you will be the last."
I made no answer to this hospitable communication;
and, indeed, he didn't wait for any, bolting
away on to his bridge to get his ship under way.
For the three days he had me on board he did not
depart from that half-hostile attitude. His ship
having been delayed three hours on my account he
couldn't forgive me for not being a more distinguished
person. He was not exactly outspoken
about it, but that feeling of annoyed wonder was
peeping out perpetually in his talk.
He was absurd.
He was also a man of much experience, which he
liked to trot out; but no greater contrast with Captain
Giles could have been imagined. He would
have amused me if I had wanted to be amused.
But I did not want to be amused. I was like a
lover looking forward to a meeting. Human hostility
was nothing to me. I thought of my unknown
ship. It was amusement enough, torment
enough, occupation enough.
He perceived my state, for his wits were sufficiently
sharp for that, and he poked sly fun at my
preoccupation in the manner some nasty, cynical
old men assume toward the dreams and illusions of
youth. I, on my side, refrained from questioning
him as to the appearance of my ship, though I
knew that being in Bangkok every fortnight or so he
must have known her by sight. I was not going to
expose the ship, my ship! to some slighting
He was the first really unsympathetic man I had
ever come in contact with. My education was far
from being finished, though I didn't know it. No!
I didn't know it.
All I knew was that he disliked me and had some
contempt for my person. Why? Apparently
because his ship had been delayed three hours on
my account. Who was I to have such a thing done
for me? Such a thing had never been done for him.
It was a sort of jealous indignation.
My expectation, mingled with fear, was wrought
to its highest pitch. How slow had been the days
of the passage and how soon they were over. One
morning, early, we crossed the bar, and while the
sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of the
land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed
under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and
reached the outskirts of the town.
There it was, spread largely on both banks, the
Oriental capital which had as yet suffered no white
conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo,
of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of
architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the
banks of the muddy river. It was amazing to think
that in those miles of human habitations there was
not probably half a dozen pounds of nails. Some
of those houses of sticks and grass, like the nests of
an aquatic race, clung to the low shores. Others
seemed to grow out of the water; others again
floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of
the stream. Here and there in the distance, above
the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered
great piles of masonry, King's Palace, temples,
gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the
vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost
palpable, which seemed to enter one's breast
with the breath of one's nostrils and soak into one's
limbs through every pore of one's skin.
The ridiculous victim of jealousy had for some
reason or other to stop his engines just then. The
steamer drifted slowly up with the tide. Oblivious
of my new surroundings I walked the deck, in anxious,
deadened abstraction, a commingling of
romantic reverie with a very practical survey of
my qualifications. For the time was approaching
for me to behold my command and to prove my
worth in the ultimate test of my profession.
Suddenly I heard myself called by that imbecile.
He was beckoning me to come up on his
I didn't care very much for that, but as it
seemed that he had something particular to say I
went up the ladder.
He laid his hand on my shoulder and gave me a slight turn,
pointing with his other arm at the same time.
"There! That's your ship, Captain," he said.
I felt a thump in my breast--only one, as if my
heart had then ceased to beat. There were ten or
more ships moored along the bank, and the one
he meant was partly hidden away from my sight by her
next astern. He said: "We'll drift abreast her in
a moment."
What was his tone? Mocking? Threatening?
Or only indifferent? I could not tell. I suspected
some malice in this unexpected manifestation of
He left me, and I leaned over the rail of the
bridge looking over the side. I dared not raise my
eyes. Yet it had to be done--and, indeed, I could
not have helped myself. I believe I trembled.
But directly my eyes had rested on my ship all
my fear vanished. It went off swiftly, like a bad
dream. Only that a dream leaves no shame behind
it, and that I felt a momentary shame at my
unworthy suspicions.
Yes, there she was. Her hull, her rigging filled
my eye with a great content. That feeling of lifeemptiness
which had made me so restless for the
last few months lost its bitter plausibility, its evil
influence, dissolved in a flow of joyous emotion.
At first glance I saw that she was a high-class
vessel, a harmonious creature in the lines of her
fine body, in the proportioned tallness of her spars.
Whatever her age and her history, she had preserved
the stamp of her origin. She was one of
those craft that, in virtue of their design and complete
finish, will never look old. Amongst her companions
moored to the bank, and all bigger than
herself, she looked like a creature of high breed--
an Arab steed in a string of cart-horses.
A voice behind me said in a nasty equivocal tone:
"I hope you are satisfied with her, Captain." I
did not even turn my head. It was the master of
the steamer, and whatever he meant, whatever he
thought of her, I knew that, like some rare women,
she was one of those creatures whose mere existence
is enough to awaken an unselfish delight. One
feels that it is good to be in the world in which she
has her being.
That illusion of life and character which charms
one in men's finest handiwork radiated from her.
An enormous bulk of teak-wood timber swung over
her hatchway; lifeless matter, looking heavier and
bigger than anything aboard of her. When they
started lowering it the surge of the tackle sent a
quiver through her from water-line to the trucks up
the fine nerves of her rigging, as though she had
shuddered at the weight. It seemed cruel to load
her so. . . .
Half an hour later, putting my foot on her deck
for the first time, I received the feeling of deep
physical satisfaction. Nothing could equal the
fullness of that moment, the ideal completeness of
that emotional experience which had come to me
without the preliminary toil and disenchantments
of an obscure career.
My rapid glance ran over her, enveloped, appropriated
the form concreting the abstract sentiment
of my command. A lot of details perceptible
to a seaman struck my eye, vividly in that instant.
For the rest, I saw her disengaged from the material
conditions of her being. The shore to which she
was moored was as if it did not exist. What were
to me all the countries of the globe? In all the
parts of the world washed by navigable waters our
relation to each other would be the same--and
more intimate than there are words to express in
the language. Apart from that, every scene and
episode would be a mere passing show. The very
gang of yellow coolies busy about the main hatch
was less substantial than the stuff dreams are made
of. For who on earth would dream of Chinamen? . . .
I went aft, ascended the poop, where, under the
awning, gleamed the brasses of the yacht-like
fittings, the polished surfaces of the rails, the glass
of the skylights. Right aft two seamen, busy
cleaning the steering gear, with the reflected ripples
of light running playfully up their bent backs, went
on with their work, unaware of me and of the almost
affectionate glance I threw at them in passing
toward the companion-way of the cabin.
The doors stood wide open, the slide was pushed
right back. The half-turn of the staircase cut off
the view of the lobby. A low humming ascended
from below, but it stopped abruptly at the sound of
my descending footsteps.
THE first thing I saw down there was the upper part
of a man's body projecting backward, as it were,
from one of the doors at the foot of the stairs. His
eyes looked at me very wide and still. In one hand
he held a dinner plate, in the other a cloth.
"I am your new Captain," I said quietly.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he had
got rid of the plate and the cloth and jumped to
open the cabin door. As soon as I passed into the
saloon he vanished, but only to reappear instantly,
buttoning up a jacket he had put on with the
swiftness of a "quick-change" artist.
"Where's the chief mate?" I asked.
"In the hold, I think, sir. I saw him go down
the after-hatch ten minutes ago."
"Tell him I am on board."
The mahogany table under the skylight shone in
the twilight like a dark pool of water. The sideboard,
surmounted by a wide looking-glass in an
ormulu frame, had a marble top. It bore a pair of
silver-plated lamps and some other pieces--
obviously a harbour display. The saloon itself
was panelled in two kinds of wood in the excellent
simple taste prevailing when the ship was built.
I sat down in the armchair at the head of the
table--the captain's chair, with a small tell-tale
compass swung above it--a mute reminder of unremitting
A succession of men had sat in that chair. I became
aware of that thought suddenly, vividly, as
though each had left a little of himself between the
four walls of these ornate bulkheads; as if a sort of
composite soul, the soul of command, had whispered
suddenly to mine of long days at sea and of anxious
"You, too!" it seemed to say, "you, too, shall
taste of that peace and that unrest in a searching
intimacy with your own self--obscure as we were
and as supreme in the face of all the winds and all
the seas, in an immensity that receives no impress,
preserves no memories, and keeps no reckoning of
Deep within the tarnished ormulu frame, in the
hot half-light sifted through the awning, I saw my
own face propped between my hands. And I
stared back at myself with the perfect detachment
of distance, rather with curiosity than with any
other feeling, except of some sympathy for this
latest representative of what for all intents and
purposes was a dynasty, continuous not in blood
indeed, but in its experience, in its training, in its
conception of duty, and in the blessed simplicity of
its traditional point of view on life.
It struck me that this quietly staring man whom
I was watching, both as if he were myself and somebody
else, was not exactly a lonely figure. He had
his place in a line of men whom he did not know, of
whom he had never heard; but who were fashioned
by the same influences, whose souls in relation to
their humble life's work had no secrets for him.
Suddenly I perceived that there was another man
in the saloon, standing a little on one side and looking
intently at me. The chief mate. His long,
red moustache determined the character of his
physiognomy, which struck me as pugnacious in
(strange to say) a ghastly sort of way.
How long had he been there looking at me, appraising
me in my unguarded day-dreaming state?
I would have been more disconcerted if, having the
clock set in the top of the mirror-frame right in
front of me, I had not noticed that its long hand
had hardly moved at all.
I could not have been in that cabin more than
two minutes altogether. Say three. . . . So
he could not have been watching me more than a
mere fraction of a minute, luckily. Still, I regretted
the occurrence.
But I showed nothing of it as I rose leisurely (it
had to be leisurely) and greeted him with perfect
There was something reluctant and at the same
time attentive in his bearing. His name was
Burns. We left the cabin and went round the ship
together. His face in the full light of day appeared
very pale, meagre, even haggard. Somehow
I had a delicacy as to looking too often at him;
his eyes, on the contrary, remained fairly glued on
my face. They were greenish and had an expectant
He answered all my questions readily enough,
but my ear seemed to catch a tone of unwillingness.
The second officer, with three or four hands, was
busy forward. The mate mentioned his name and
I nodded to him in passing. He was very young.
He struck me as rather a cub.
When we returned below, I sat down on one end
of a deep, semi-circular, or, rather, semi-oval settee,
upholstered in red plush. It extended right across
the whole after-end of the cabin. Mr. Burns
motioned to sit down, dropped into one of the
swivel-chairs round the table, and kept his eyes on
me as persistently as ever, and with that strange air
as if all this were make-believe and he expected me
to get up, burst into a laugh, slap him on the back,
and vanish from the cabin.
There was an odd stress in the situation which
began to make me uncomfortable. I tried to react
against this vague feeling.
"It's only my inexperience," I thought.
In the face of that man, several years, I judged,
older than myself, I became aware of what I had
left already behind me--my youth. And that was
indeed poor comfort. Youth is a fine thing, a
mighty power--as long as one does not think of
it. I felt I was becoming self-conscious. Almost
against my will I assumed a moody gravity. I
said: "I see you have kept her in very good order,
Mr. Burns."
Directly I had uttered these words I asked myself
angrily why the deuce did I want to say that?
Mr. Burns in answer had only blinked at me. What
on earth did he mean?
I fell back on a question which had been in my
thoughts for a long time--the most natural question
on the lips of any seaman whatever joining a
ship. I voiced it (confound this self-consciousness)
in a degage cheerful tone: "I suppose she can travel
Now a question like this might have been answered
normally, either in accents of apologetic
sorrow or with a visibly suppressed pride, in a "I
don't want to boast, but you shall see," sort of
tone. There are sailors, too, who would have been
roughly outspoken: "Lazy brute," or openly delighted:
"She's a flyer." Two ways, if four
But Mr. Burns found another way, a way of his
own which had, at all events, the merit of saving
his breath, if no other.
Again he did not say anything. He only
frowned. And it was an angry frown. I waited.
Nothing more came.
"What's the matter? . . . Can't you tell
after being nearly two years in the ship?" I addressed
him sharply.
He looked as startled for a moment as though he
had discovered my presence only that very moment.
But this passed off almost at once. He
put on an air of indifference. But I suppose he
thought it better to say something. He said that a
ship needed, just like a man, the chance to show the
best she could do, and that this ship had never had
a chance since he had been on board of her. Not
that he could remember. The last captain. . . .
He paused.
"Has he been so very unlucky?" I asked with
frank incredulity. Mr. Burns turned his eyes away
from me. No, the late captain was not an unlucky
man. One couldn't say that. But he had not
seemed to want to make use of his luck.
Mr. Burns--man of enigmatic moods--made
this statement with an inanimate face and staring
wilfully at the rudder casing. The statement itself
was obscurely suggestive. I asked quietly:
"Where did he die?"
"In this saloon. Just where you are sitting
now," answered Mr. Burns.
I repressed a silly impulse to jump up; but upon
the whole I was relieved to hear that he had not
died in the bed which was now to be mine. I
pointed out to the chief mate that what I really
wanted to know was where he had buried his late
Mr. Burns said that it was at the entrance to the
gulf. A roomy grave; a sufficient answer. But
the mate, overcoming visibly something within him
--something like a curious reluctance to believe in
my advent (as an irrevocable fact, at any rate), did
not stop at that--though, indeed, he may have
wished to do so.
As a compromise with his feelings, I believe, he
addressed himself persistently to the rudder-casing,
so that to me he had the appearance of a man
talking in solitude, a little unconsciously, however.
His tale was that at seven bells in the forenoon
watch he had all hands mustered on the quarterdeck
and told them they had better go down to say
good-bye to the captain.
Those words, as if grudged to an intruding personage,
were enough for me to evoke vividly that
strange ceremony: The bare-footed, bare-headed
seamen crowding shyly into that cabin, a small
mob pressed against that sideboard, uncomfortable
rather than moved, shirts open on sunburnt chests,
weather-beaten faces, and all staring at the dying
man with the same grave and expectant expression.
"Was he conscious?" I asked.
"He didn't speak, but he moved his eyes to look
at them," said the mate.
After waiting a moment, Mr. Burns motioned
the crew to leave the cabin, but he detained the two
eldest men to stay with the captain while he went
on deck with his sextant to "take the sun." It
was getting toward noon and he was anxious to
obtain a good observation for latitude. When he
returned below to put his sextant away he found
that the two men had retreated out into the lobby.
Through the open door he had a view of the captain
lying easy against the pillows. He had "passed
away" while Mr. Burns was taking this observation.
As near noon as possible. He had hardly
changed his position.
Mr. Burns sighed, glanced at me inquisitively,
as much as to say, "Aren't you going yet?" and then
turned his thoughts from his new captain back to
the old, who, being dead, had no authority, was not
in anybody's way, and was much easier to deal with.
Mr. Burns dealt with him at some length. He
was a peculiar man--of sixty-five about--iron gray,
hard-faced, obstinate, and uncommunicative. He
used to keep the ship loafing at sea for inscrutable
reasons. Would come on deck at night sometimes,
take some sail off her, God only knows why or
wherefore, then go below, shut himself up in his
cabin, and play on the violin for hours--till daybreak
perhaps. In fact, he spent most of his time
day or night playing the violin. That was when
the fit took him. Very loud, too.
It came to this, that Mr. Burns mustered his
courage one day and remonstrated earnestly with
the captain. Neither he nor the second mate
could get a wink of sleep in their watches below for
the noise. . . . And how could they be expected
to keep awake while on duty? He pleaded.
The answer of that stern man was that if he and the
second mate didn't like the noise, they were welcome
to pack up their traps and walk over the side.
When this alternative was offered the ship happened
to be 600 miles from the nearest land.
Mr. Burns at this point looked at me with an air
of curiosity. I began to think that my predecessor
was a remarkably peculiar old man.
But I had to hear stranger things yet. It came
out that this stern, grim, wind-tanned, rough, seasalted,
taciturn sailor of sixty-five was not only an
artist, but a lover as well. In Haiphong, when
they got there after a course of most unprofitable
peregrinations (during which the ship was nearly
lost twice), he got himself, in Mr. Burns' own
words, "mixed up" with some woman. Mr. Burns
had had no personal knowledge of that affair, but
positive evidence of it existed in the shape of a
photograph taken in Haiphong. Mr. Burns found
it in one of the drawers in the captain's room.
In due course I, too, saw that amazing human
document (I even threw it overboard later).
There he sat, with his hands reposing on his knees,
bald, squat, gray, bristly, recalling a wild boar
somehow; and by his side towered an awful mature,
white female with rapacious nostrils and a cheaply
ill-omened stare in her enormous eyes. She was
disguised in some semi-oriental, vulgar, fancy
costume. She resembled a low-class medium or
one of those women who tell fortunes by cards for
half a crown. And yet she was striking. A professional
sorceress from the slums. It was incomprehensible.
There was something awful in the
thought that she was the last reflection of the world
of passion for the fierce soul which seemed to look
at one out of the sardonically savage face of that old
seaman. However, I noticed that she was holding
some musical instrument--guitar or mandoline--
in her hand. Perhaps that was the secret of her
For Mr. Burns that photograph explained why
the unloaded ship had kept sweltering at anchor
for three weeks in a pestilential hot harbour without
air. They lay there and gasped. The captain,
appearing now and then on short visits,
mumbled to Mr. Burns unlikely tales about some
letters he was waiting for.
Suddenly, after vanishing for a week, he came on
board in the middle of the night and took the ship
out to sea with the first break of dawn. Daylight
showed him looking wild and ill. The mere getting
clear of the land took two days, and somehow or
other they bumped slightly on a reef. However,
no leak developed, and the captain, growling "no
matter," informed Mr. Burns that he had made up
his mind to take the ship to Hong-Kong and drydock
her there.
At this Mr. Burns was plunged into despair. For
indeed, to beat up to Hong-Kong against a fierce
monsoon, with a ship not sufficiently ballasted and
with her supply of water not completed, was an insane
But the captain growled peremptorily, "Stick
her at it," and Mr. Burns, dismayed and enraged,
stuck her at it, and kept her at it, blowing away
sails, straining the spars, exhausting the crew--
nearly maddened by the absolute conviction that
the attempt was impossible and was bound to end
in some catastrophe.
Meantime the captain, shut up in his cabin and
wedged in a corner of his settee against the crazy
bounding of the ship, played the violin--or, at any
rate, made continuous noise on it.
When he appeared on deck he would not speak
and not always answer when spoken to. It was
obvious that he was ill in some mysterious manner,
and beginning to break up.
As the days went by the sounds of the violin became
less and less loud, till at last only a feeble
scratching would meet Mr. Burns' ear as he stood
in the saloon listening outside the door of the captain's
One afternoon in perfect desperation he burst
into that room and made such a scene, tearing his
hair and shouting such horrid imprecations that he
cowed the contemptuous spirit of the sick man.
The water-tanks were low, they had not gained fifty
miles in a fortnight. She would never reach Hong-
It was like fighting desperately toward destruction
for the ship and the men. This was evident
without argument. Mr. Burns, losing all restraint,
put his face close to his captain's and fairly
yelled: "You, sir, are going out of the world. But
I can't wait till you are dead before I put the helm
up. You must do it yourself. You must do it
The man on the couch snarled in contempt.
"So I am going out of the world--am I?"
"Yes, sir--you haven't many days left in it,"
said Mr. Burns calming down. "One can see it by
your face."
"My face, eh? . . . Well, put up the helm
and be damned to you."
Burns flew on deck, got the ship before the wind,
then came down again composed, but resolute.
"I've shaped a course for Pulo Condor, sir," he
said. "When we make it, if you are still with us,
you'll tell me into what port you wish me to take
the ship and I'll do it."
The old man gave him a look of savage spite,
and said those atrocious words in deadly, slow
"If I had my wish, neither the ship nor any of
you would ever reach a port. And I hope you
Mr. Burns was profoundly shocked. I believe
he was positively frightened at the time. It seems,
however, that he managed to produce such an
effective laugh that it was the old man's turn to be
frightened. He shrank within himself and turned
his back on him.
"And his head was not gone then," Mr. Burns
assured me excitedly. "He meant every word of it."
"Such was practically the late captain's last
speech. No connected sentence passed his lips
afterward. That night he used the last of his
strength to throw his fiddle over the side. No one
had actually seen him in the act, but after his
death Mr. Burns couldn't find the thing anywhere.
The empty case was very much in evidence, but
the fiddle was clearly not in the ship. And where
else could it have gone to but overboard?"
"Threw his violin overboard!" I exclaimed.
"He did," cried Mr. Burns excitedly. "And
it's my belief he would have tried to take the ship
down with him if it had been in human power. He
never meant her to see home again. He wouldn't
write to his owners, he never wrote to his old wife,
either--he wasn't going to. He had made up his
mind to cut adrift from everything. That's what
it was. He didn't care for business, or freights, or
for making a passage--or anything. He meant to
have gone wandering about the world till he lost her
with all hands."
Mr. Burns looked like a man who had escaped
great danger. For a little he would have exclaimed:
"If it hadn't been for me!" And the
transparent innocence of his indignant eyes was
underlined quaintly by the arrogant pair of
moustaches which he proceeded to twist, and as if
extend, horizontally.
I might have smiled if I had not been busy with
my own sensations, which were not those of Mr.
Burns. I was already the man in command. My
sensations could not be like those of any other man
on board. In that community I stood, like a king
in his country, in a class all by myself. I mean an
hereditary king, not a mere elected head of a state.
I was brought there to rule by an agency as remote
from the people and as inscrutable almost to them
as the Grace of God.
And like a member of a dynasty, feeling a semimystical
bond with the dead, I was profoundly
shocked by my immediate predecessor.
That man had been in all essentials but his age
just such another man as myself. Yet the end of
his life was a complete act of treason, the betrayal
of a tradition which seemed to me as imperative as
any guide on earth could be. It appeared that
even at sea a man could become the victim of evil
spirits. I felt on my face the breath of unknown
powers that shape our destinies.
Not to let the silence last too long I asked Mr.
Burns if he had written to his captain's wife. He
shook his head. He had written to nobody.
In a moment he became sombre. He never
thought of writing. It took him all his time to
watch incessantly the loading of the ship by a
rascally Chinese stevedore. In this Mr. Burns
gave me the first glimpse of the real chief mate's
soul which dwelt uneasily in his body.
He mused, then hastened on with gloomy
"Yes! The captain died as near noon as possible.
I looked through his papers in the afternoon.
I read the service over him at sunset and then I
stuck the ship's head north and brought her in
here. I--brought--her--in."
He struck the table with his fist.
"She would hardly have come in by herself," I
observed. "But why didn't you make for Singapore
His eyes wavered. "The nearest port," he
muttered sullenly.
I had framed the question in perfect innocence,
but his answer (the difference in distance was insignificant)
and his manner offered me a clue to the
simple truth. He took the ship to a port where he
expected to be confirmed in his temporary command
from lack of a qualified master to put over his
head. Whereas Singapore, he surmised justly,
would be full of qualified men. But his naive
reasoning forgot to take into account the telegraph
cable reposing on the bottom of the very Gulf up
which he had turned that ship which he imagined
himself to have saved from destruction. Hence
the bitter flavour of our interview. I tasted it
more and more distinctly--and it was less and less
to my taste.
"Look here, Mr. Burns," I began very firmly.
"You may as well understand that I did not run
after this command. It was pushed in my way.
I've accepted it. I am here to take the ship home
first of all, and you may be sure that I shall see
to it that every one of you on board here does his
duty to that end. This is all I have to say--for
the present."
He was on his feet by this time, but instead of
taking his dismissal he remained with trembling,
indignant lips, and looking at me hard as though,
really, after this, there was nothing for me to do in
common decency but to vanish from his outraged
sight. Like all very simple emotional states this
was moving. I felt sorry for him--almost sympathetic,
till (seeing that I did not vanish) he spoke
in a tone of forced restraint.
"If I hadn't a wife and a child at home you may
be sure, sir, I would have asked you to let me go the
very minute you came on board."
I answered him with a matter-of-course calmness
as though some remote third person were in question.
"And I, Mr. Burns, would not have let you go.
You have signed the ship's articles as chief officer,
and till they are terminated at the final port of
discharge I shall expect you to attend to your duty
and give me the benefit of your experience to the
best of your ability."
Stony incredulity lingered in his eyes: but it
broke down before my friendly attitude. With a
slight upward toss of his arms (I got to know that
gesture well afterward) he bolted out of the
We might have saved ourselves that little passage
of harmless sparring. Before many days had
elapsed it was Mr. Burns who was pleading with
me anxiously not to leave him behind; while I could
only return him but doubtful answers. The whole
thing took on a somewhat tragic complexion.
And this horrible problem was only an extraneous
episode, a mere complication in the general
problem of how to get that ship--which was mine
with her appurtenances and her men, with her body
and her spirit now slumbering in that pestilential
river--how to get her out to sea.
Mr. Burns, while still acting captain, had
hastened to sign a charter-party which in an ideal
world without guile would have been an excellent
document. Directly I ran my eye over it I foresaw
trouble ahead unless the people of the other
part were quite exceptionally fair-minded and open
to argument.
Mr. Burns, to whom I imparted my fears, chose
to take great umbrage at them. He looked at me
with that usual incredulous stare, and said bitterly:
"I suppose, sir, you want to make out I've acted
like a fool?"
I told him, with my systematic kindliness which
always seemed to augment his surprise, that I did
not want to make out anything. I would leave
that to the future.
And, sure enough, the future brought in a lot of
trouble. There were days when I used to remember
Captain Giles with nothing short of abhorrence.
His confounded acuteness had let me in
for this job; while his prophecy that I "would have
my hands full" coming true, made it appear as if
done on purpose to play an evil joke on my young
Yes. I had my hands full of complications which
were most valuable as "experience." People have
a great opinion of the advantages of experience.
But in this connection experience means always
something disagreeable as opposed to the charm
and innocence of illusions.
I must say I was losing mine rapidly. But on
these instructive complications I must not enlarge
more than to say that they could all be resumed in
the one word: Delay.
A mankind which has invented the proverb,
"Time is money," will understand my vexation.
The word "Delay" entered the secret chamber of
my brain, resounded there like a tolling bell which
maddens the ear, affected all my senses, took on a
black colouring, a bitter taste, a deadly meaning.
"I am really sorry to see you worried like this.
Indeed, I am. . . ."
It was the only humane speech I used to hear at
that time. And it came from a doctor, appropriately
A doctor is humane by definition. But that man
was so in reality. His speech was not professional.
I was not ill. But other people were, and that was
the reason of his visiting the ship.
He was the doctor of our Legation and, of course,
of the Consulate, too. He looked after the ship's
health, which generally was poor, and trembling,
as it were, on the verge of a break-up. Yes. The
men ailed. And thus time was not only money,
but life as well.
I had never seen such a steady ship's company.
As the doctor remarked to me: "You seem to have
a most respectable lot of seamen." Not only were
they consistently sober, but they did not even
want to go ashore. Care was taken to expose
them as little as possible to the sun. They were
employed on light work under the awnings. And
the humane doctor commended me.
"Your arrangements appear to me to be very
judicious, my dear Captain."
It is difficult to express how much that pronouncement
comforted me. The doctor's round,
full face framed in a light-coloured whisker was the
perfection of a dignified amenity. He was the only
human being in the world who seemed to take the
slightest interest in me. He would generally sit in
the cabin for half an hour or so at every visit.
I said to him one day:
"I suppose the only thing now is to take care of
them as you are doing till I can get the ship to
He inclined his head, shutting his eyes under the
large spectacles, and murmured:
"The sea . . . undoubtedly."
The first member of the crew fairly knocked over
was the steward--the first man to whom I had
spoken on board. He was taken ashore (with
choleric symptoms) and died there at the end of a
week. Then, while I was still under the startling
impression of this first home-thrust of the climate,
Mr. Burns gave up and went to bed in a raging
fever without saying a word to anybody.
I believe he had partly fretted himself into that
illness; the climate did the rest with the swiftness
of an invisible monster ambushed in the air, in the
water, in the mud of the river-bank. Mr. Burns
was a predestined victim.
I discovered him lying on his back, glaring sullenly
and radiating heat on one like a small furnace.
He would hardly answer my questions, and only
grumbled. Couldn't a man take an afternoon off
duty with a bad headache--for once?
That evening, as I sat in the saloon after dinner,
I could hear him muttering continuously in his
room. Ransome, who was clearing the table, said
to me:
"I am afraid, sir, I won't be able to give the mate
all the attention he's likely to need. I will have
to be forward in the galley a great part of my
Ransome was the cook. The mate had pointed
him out to me the first day, standing on the deck,
his arms crossed on his broad chest, gazing on the
Even at a distance his well-proportioned figure,
something thoroughly sailor-like in his poise, made
him noticeable. On nearer view the intelligent,
quiet eyes, a well-bred face, the disciplined independence
of his manner made up an attractive
personality. When, in addition, Mr. Burns told
me that he was the best seaman in the ship, I expressed
my surprise that in his earliest prime and of
such appearance he should sign on as cook on board
a ship.
"It's his heart," Mr. Burns had said. "There's
something wrong with it. He mustn't exert himself
too much or he may drop dead suddenly."
And he was the only one the climate had not
touched--perhaps because, carrying a deadly
enemy in his breast, he had schooled himself into a
systematic control of feelings and movements.
When one was in the secret this was apparent in his
manner. After the poor steward died, and as he
could not be replaced by a white man in this
Oriental port, Ransome had volunteered to do the
double work.
"I can do it all right, sir, as long as I go about it
quietly," he had assured me.
But obviously he couldn't be expected to take up
sick-nursing in addition. Moreover, the doctor
peremptorily ordered Mr. Burns ashore.
With a seaman on each side holding him up
under the arms, the mate went over the gangway
more sullen than ever. We built him up with pillows
in the gharry, and he made an effort to say
"Now--you've got--what you wanted--got me
out of--the ship."
"You were never more mistaken in your life,
Mr. Burns," I said quietly, duly smiling at him;
and the trap drove off to a sort of sanatorium, a
pavilion of bricks which the doctor had in the
grounds of his residence.
I visited Mr. Burns regularly. After the first
few days, when he didn't know anybody, he received
me as if I had come either to gloat over an
enemy or else to curry favour with a deeply
wronged person. It was either one or the other,
just as it happened according to his fantastic sickroom
moods. Whichever it was, he managed to
convey it to me even during the period when he appeared
almost too weak to talk. I treated him to
my invariable kindliness.
Then one day, suddenly, a surge of downright
panic burst through all this craziness.
If I left him behind in this deadly place he would
die. He felt it, he was certain of it. But I
wouldn't have the heart to leave him ashore. He
had a wife and child in Sydney.
He produced his wasted forearms from under the
sheet which covered him and clasped his fleshless
claws. He would die! He would die here. . . .
He absolutely managed to sit up, but only for a
moment, and when he fell back I really thought
that he would die there and then. I called to the
Bengali dispenser, and hastened away from the
Next day he upset me thoroughly by renewing
his entreaties. I returned an evasive answer, and
left him the picture of ghastly despair. The day
after I went in with reluctance, and he attacked me
at once in a much stronger voice and with an
abundance of argument which was quite startling.
He presented his case with a sort of crazy vigour,
and asked me finally how would I like to have a
man's death on my conscience? He wanted me to
promise that I would not sail without him.
I said that I really must consult the doctor first.
He cried out at that. The doctor! Never! That
would be a death sentence.
The effort had exhausted him. He closed his
eyes, but went on rambling in a low voice. I had
hated him from the start. The late captain had
hated him, too. Had wished him dead. Had
wished all hands dead. . . .
"What do you want to stand in with that wicked
corpse for, sir? He'll have you, too," he ended,
blinking his glazed eyes vacantly.
"Mr. Burns," I cried, very much discomposed,
"what on earth are you talking about?"
He seemed to come to himself, though he was too
weak to start.
"I don't know," he said languidly. "But don't
ask that doctor, sir. You are I are sailors. Don't
ask him, sir. Some day perhaps you will have a
wife and child yourself."
And again he pleaded for the promise that I
would not leave him behind. I had the firmness of
mind not to give it to him. Afterward this sternness
seemed criminal; for my mind was made up.
That prostrated man, with hardly strength enough
to breathe and ravaged by a passion of fear, was
irresistible. And, besides, he had happened to hit
on the right words. He and I were sailors. That
was a claim, for I had no other family. As to the
wife and child (some day) argument, it had no force.
It sounded merely bizarre.
I could imagine no claim that would be stronger
and more absorbing than the claim of that ship, of
these men snared in the river by silly commercial
complications, as if in some poisonous trap.
However, I had nearly fought my way out. Out
to sea. The sea--which was pure, safe, and
friendly. Three days more.
That thought sustained and carried me on my
way back to the ship. In the saloon the doctor's
voice greeted me, and his large form followed his
voice, issuing out of the starboard spare cabin
where the ship's medicine chest was kept securely
lashed in the bed-place.
Finding that I was not on board he had gone in
there, he said, to inspect the supply of drugs,
bandages, and so on. Everything was completed
and in order.
I thanked him; I had just been thinking of
asking him to do that very thing, as in a couple of
days, as he knew, we were going to sea, where
all our troubles of every sort would be over at
He listened gravely and made no answer. But
when I opened to him my mind as to Mr. Burns he
sat down by my side, and, laying his hand on my
knee amicably, begged me to think what it was I
was exposing myself to.
The man was just strong enough to bear being
moved and no more. But he couldn't stand a return
of the fever. I had before me a passage of
sixty days perhaps, beginning with intricate navigation
and ending probably with a lot of bad
weather. Could I run the risk of having to go
through it single-handed, with no chief officer and
with a second quite a youth? . . .
He might have added that it was my first command,
too. He did probably think of that fact, for he
checked himself. It was very present to my mind.
He advised me earnestly to cable to Singapore
for a chief officer, even if I had to delay my sailing
for a week.
"Never," I said. The very thought gave me the
shivers. The hands seemed fairly fit, all of them,
and this was the time to get them away. Once at
sea I was not afraid of facing anything. The sea
was now the only remedy for all my troubles.
The doctor's glasses were directed at me like two
lamps searching the genuineness of my resolution.
He opened his lips as if to argue further, but shut
them again without saying anything. I had a
vision so vivid of poor Burns in his exhaustion,
helplessness, and anguish, that it moved me more
than the reality I had come away from only an
hour before. It was purged from the drawbacks of
his personality, and I could not resist it.
"Look here," I said. "Unless you tell me
officially that the man must not be moved I'll make
arrangements to have him brought on board tomorrow,
and shall take the ship out of the river
next morning, even if I have to anchor outside the
bar for a couple of days to get her ready for sea."
"Oh! I'll make all the arrangements myself,"
said the doctor at once. "I spoke as I did only as a
friend--as a well-wisher, and that sort of thing."
He rose in his dignified simplicity and gave me a
warm handshake, rather solemnly, I thought. But
he was as good as his word. When Mr. Burns appeared
at the gangway carried on a stretcher, the
doctor himself walked by its side. The programme
had been altered in so far that this transportation
had been left to the last moment, on the very morning
of our departure.
It was barely an hour after sunrise. The doctor
waved his big arm to me from the shore and walked
back at once to his trap, which had followed him
empty to the river-side. Mr. Burns, carried across
the quarter-deck, had the appearance of being
absolutely lifeless. Ransome went down to settle
him in his cabin. I had to remain on deck to look
after the ship, for the tug had got hold of our towrope
The splash of our shore-fasts falling in the water
produced a complete change of feeling in me. It
was like the imperfect relief of awakening from a
nightmare. But when the ship's head swung down
the river away from that town, Oriental and
squalid, I missed the expected elation of that
striven-for moment. What there was, undoubtedly,
was a relaxation of tension which translated
itself into a sense of weariness after an inglorious
About midday we anchored a mile outside the
bar. The afternoon was busy for all hands.
Watching the work from the poop, where I remained
all the time, I detected in it some of the
languor of the six weeks spent in the steaming heat
of the river. The first breeze would blow that
away. Now the calm was complete. I judged
that the second officer--a callow youth with an
unpromising face--was not, to put it mildly, of that
invaluable stuff from which a commander's right
hand is made. But I was glad to catch along the
main deck a few smiles on those seamen's faces at
which I had hardly had time to have a good look as
yet. Having thrown off the mortal coil of shore
affairs, I felt myself familiar with them and yet a
little strange, like a long-lost wanderer among his
Ransome flitted continually to and fro between
the galley and the cabin. It was a pleasure to
look at him. The man positively had grace. He
alone of all the crew had not had a day's illness in
port. But with the knowledge of that uneasy
heart within his breast I could detect the restraint
he put on the natural sailor-like agility of his
movements. It was as though he had something
very fragile or very explosive to carry about his
person and was all the time aware of it.
I had occasion to address him once or twice. He
answered me in his pleasant, quiet voice and with a
faint, slightly wistful smile. Mr. Burns appeared
to be resting. He seemed fairly comfortable.
After sunset I came out on deck again to meet
only a still void. The thin, featureless crust of the
coast could not be distinguished. The darkness
had risen around the ship like a mysterious emanation
from the dumb and lonely waters. I leaned
on the rail and turned my ear to the shadows of the
night. Not a sound. My command might have
been a planet flying vertiginously on its appointed
path in a space of infinite silence. I clung to the
rail as if my sense of balance were leaving me for
good. How absurd. I failed nervously.
"On deck there!"
The immediate answer, "Yes, sir," broke the
spell. The anchor-watch man ran up the poop
ladder smartly. I told him to report at once the
slightest sign of a breeze coming.
Going below I looked in on Mr. Burns. In fact,
I could not avoid seeing him, for his door stood
open. The man was so wasted that, in this white
cabin, under a white sheet, and with his diminished
head sunk in the white pillow, his red moustaches
captured their eyes exclusively, like something artificial--
a pair of moustaches from a shop exhibited
there in the harsh light of the bulkhead-lamp
without a shade.
While I stared with a sort of wonder he asserted
himself by opening his eyes and even moving them
in my direction. A minute stir.
"Dead calm, Mr. Burns," I said resignedly.
In an unexpectedly distinct voice Mr. Burns began
a rambling speech. Its tone was very strange,
not as if affected by his illness, but as if of a different
nature. It sounded unearthly. As to the
matter, I seemed to make out that it was the fault
of the "old man"--the late captain--ambushed
down there under the sea with some evil intention.
It was a weird story.
I listened to the end; then stepping into the
cabin I laid my hand on the mate's forehead. It
was cool. He was light-headed only from extreme
weakness. Suddenly he seemed to become aware
of me, and in his own voice--of course, very feeble
--he asked regretfully:
"Is there no chance at all to get under way, sir?"
"What's the good of letting go our hold of the
ground only to drift, Mr. Burns?" I answered.
He sighed and I left him to his immobility. His
hold on life was as slender as his hold on sanity. I
was oppressed by my lonely responsibilities. I
went into my cabin to seek relief in a few hours'
sleep, but almost before I closed my eyes the man
on deck came down reporting a light breeze.
Enough to get under way with, he said.
And it was no more than just enough. I ordered
the windlass manned, the sails loosed, and the topsails
set. But by the time I had cast the ship I
could hardly feel any breath of wind. Nevertheless,
I trimmed the yards and put everything on
her. I was not going to give up the attempt.
WITH her anchor at the bow and clothed in canvas
to her very trucks, my command seemed to stand
as motionless as a model ship set on the gleams and
shadows of polished marble. It was impossible
to distinguish land from water in the enigmatical
tranquillity of the immense forces of the world.
A sudden impatience possessed me.
"Won't she answer the helm at all?" I said
irritably to the man whose strong brown hands
grasping the spokes of the wheel stood out lighted
on the darkness; like a symbol of mankind's claim
to the direction of its own fate.
He answered me.
"Yes, sir. She's coming-to slowly."
"Let her head come up to south."
"Aye, aye, sir."
I paced the poop. There was not a sound but
that of my footsteps, till the man spoke again.
"She is at south now, sir."
I felt a slight tightness of the chest before I gave
out the first course of my first command to the
silent night, heavy with dew and sparkling with
stars. There was a finality in the act committing
me to the endless vigilance of my lonely task.
"Steady her head at that," I said at last. "The
course is south."
"South, sir," echoed the man.
I sent below the second mate and his watch and
remained in charge, walking the deck through the
chill, somnolent hours that precede the dawn.
Slight puffs came and went, and whenever they
were strong enough to wake up the black water the
murmur alongside ran through my very heart in a
delicate crescendo of delight and died away swiftly.
I was bitterly tired. The very stars seemed weary
of waiting for daybreak. It came at last with a
mother-of-pearl sheen at the zenith, such as I had
never seen before in the tropics, unglowing, almost
gray, with a strange reminder of high latitudes.
The voice of the look-out man hailed from forward:
"Land on the port bow, sir."
"All right."
Leaning on the rail I never even raised my eyes.
The motion of the ship was imperceptible. Presently
Ransome brought me the cup of morning
coffee. After I had drunk it I looked ahead, and in
the still streak of very bright pale orange light I
saw the land profiled flatly as if cut out of black
paper and seeming to float on the water as light as
cork. But the rising sun turned it into mere dark
vapour, a doubtful, massive shadow trembling in
the hot glare.
The watch finished washing decks. I went below
and stopped at Mr. Burns' door (he could not
bear to have it shut), but hesitated to speak to him
till he moved his eyes. I gave him the news.
"Sighted Cape Liant at daylight. About fifteen
He moved his lips then, but I heard no sound
till I put my ear down, and caught the peevish
comment: "This is crawling. . . . No luck."
"Better luck than standing still, anyhow," I
pointed out resignedly, and left him to whatever
thoughts or fancies haunted his awful immobility.
Later that morning, when relieved by my second
officer, I threw myself on my couch and for some
three hours or so I really found oblivion. It was so
perfect that on waking up I wondered where I was.
Then came the immense relief of the thought: on
board my ship! At sea! At sea!
Through the port-holes I beheld an unruffled,
sun-smitten horizon. The horizon of a windless
day. But its spaciousness alone was enough to
give me a sense of a fortunate escape, a momentary
exultation of freedom.
I stepped out into the saloon with my heart
lighter than it had been for days. Ransome was at
the sideboard preparing to lay the table for the first
sea dinner of the passage. He turned his head, and
something in his eyes checked my modest elation.
Instinctively I asked: "What is it now?" not expecting
in the least the answer I got. It was given
with that sort of contained serenity which was
characteristic of the man.
"I am afraid we haven't left all sickness behind
us, sir."
"We haven't! What's the matter?"
He told me then that two of our men had been
taken bad with fever in the night. One of them
was burning and the other was shivering, but he
thought that it was pretty much the same thing.
I thought so, too. I felt shocked by the news.
"One burning, the other shivering, you say? No.
We haven't left the sickness behind. Do they look
very ill?"
"Middling bad, sir." Ransome's eyes gazed
steadily into mine. We exchanged smiles. Ransome's
a little wistful, as usual, mine no doubt grim
enough, to correspond with my secret exasperation.
I asked:
"Was there any wind at all this morning?"
"Can hardly say that, sir. We've moved all the
time though. The land ahead seems a little nearer."
That was it. A little nearer. Whereas if we
had only had a little more wind, only a very little
more, we might, we should, have been abreast of
Liant by this time and increasing our distance from
that contaminated shore. And it was not only the
distance. It seemed to me that a stronger breeze
would have blown away the contamination which
clung to the ship. It obviously did cling to the
ship. Two men. One burning, one shivering. I
felt a distinct reluctance to go and look at them.
What was the good? Poison is poison. Tropical
fever is tropical fever. But that it should have
stretched its claw after us over the sea seemed to
me an extraordinary and unfair license. I could
hardly believe that it could be anything worse than
the last desperate pluck of the evil from which we
were escaping into the clean breath of the sea. If
only that breath had been a little stronger. However,
there was the quinine against the fever. I
went into the spare cabin where the medicine chest
was kept to prepare two doses. I opened it full of
faith as a man opens a miraculous shrine. The
upper part was inhabited by a collection of bottles,
all square-shouldered and as like each other as
peas. Under that orderly array there were two
drawers, stuffed as full of things as one could imagine--
paper packages, bandages, cardboard boxes
officially labelled. The lower of the two, in one
of its compartments, contained our provision of
There were five bottles, all round and all of a
size. One was about a third full. The other four
remained still wrapped up in paper and sealed.
But I did not expect to see an envelope lying on top
of them. A square envelope, belonging, in fact, to
the ship's stationery.
It lay so that I could see it was not closed down,
and on picking it up and turning it over I perceived
that it was addressed to myself. It contained a
half-sheet of notepaper, which I unfolded with a
queer sense of dealing with the uncanny, but without
any excitement as people meet and do extraordinary
things in a dream.
"My dear Captain," it began, but I ran to the
signature. The writer was the doctor. The date
was that of the day on which, returning from my
visit to Mr. Burns in the hospital, I had found the
excellent doctor waiting for me in the cabin; and
when he told me that he had been putting in
time inspecting the medicine chest for me. How
bizarre! While expecting me to come in at any
moment he had been amusing himself by writing
me a letter, and then as I came in had hastened to
stuff it into the medicine-chest drawer. A rather
incredible proceeding. I turned to the text in
In a large, hurried, but legible hand the good,
sympathetic man for some reason, either of kindness
or more likely impelled by the irresistible desire
to express his opinion, with which he didn't
want to damp my hopes before, was warning me
not to put my trust in the beneficial effects of a
change from land to sea. "I didn't want to add to
your worries by discouraging your hopes," he
wrote. "I am afraid that, medically speaking, the
end of your troubles is not yet." In short, he expected
me to have to fight a probable return of
tropical illness. Fortunately I had a good provision
of quinine. I should put my trust in that,
and administer it steadily, when the ship's health
would certainly improve.
I crumpled up the letter and rammed it into my
pocket. Ransome carried off two big doses to the
men forward. As to myself, I did not go on deck as
yet. I went instead to the door of Mr. Burns'
room, and gave him that news, too.
It was impossible to say the effect it had on him.
At first I thought that he was speechless. His head
lay sunk in the pillow. He moved his lips enough,
however, to assure me that he was getting much
stronger; a statement shockingly untrue on the
face of it.
That afternoon I took my watch as a matter of
course. A great over-heated stillness enveloped
the ship and seemed to hold her motionless in a
flaming ambience composed in two shades of blue.
Faint, hot puffs eddied nervelessly from her sails.
And yet she moved. She must have. For, as the
sun was setting, we had drawn abreast of Cape
Liant and dropped it behind us: an ominous retreating
shadow in the last gleams of twilight.
In the evening, under the crude glare of his lamp,
Mr. Burns seemed to have come more to the surface
of his bedding. It was as if a depressing hand had
been lifted off him. He answered my few words
by a comparatively long, connected speech. He
asserted himself strongly. If he escaped being
smothered by this stagnant heat, he said, he was
confident that in a very few days he would be able
to come up on deck and help me.
While he was speaking I trembled lest this effort
of energy should leave him lifeless before my eyes.
But I cannot deny that there was something comforting
in his willingness. I made a suitable
reply, but pointed out to him that the only thing
that could really help us was wind--a fair wind.
He rolled his head impatiently on the pillow.
And it was not comforting in the least to hear him
begin to mutter crazily about the late captain, that
old man buried in latitude 8 d 20', right in our way
--ambushed at the entrance of the Gulf.
"Are you still thinking of your late captain, Mr.
Burns?" I said. "I imagine the dead feel no animosity
against the living. They care nothing for them."
"You don't know that one," he breathed out
"No. I didn't know him, and he didn't know
me. And so he can't have any grievance against
me, anyway."
"Yes. But there's all the rest of us on board," he
I felt the inexpugnable strength of common sense
being insidiously menaced by this gruesome, by
this insane, delusion. And I said:
"You mustn't talk so much. You will tire yourself."
"And there is the ship herself," he persisted in a whisper.
"Now, not a word more," I said, stepping in and
laying my hand on his cool forehead. It proved to
me that this atrocious absurdity was rooted in the
man himself and not in the disease, which, apparently,
had emptied him of every power, mental
and physical, except that one fixed idea.
I avoided giving Mr. Burns any opening for conversation
for the next few days. I merely used to
throw him a hasty, cheery word when passing his
door. I believe that if he had had the strength he
would have called out after me more than once.
But he hadn't the strength. Ransome, however,
observed to me one afternoon that the mate
"seemed to be picking up wonderfully."
"Did he talk any nonsense to you of late?" I
asked casually.
"No, sir." Ransome was startled by the direct
question; but, after a pause, he added equably:
"He told me this morning, sir, that he was sorry he
had to bury our late captain right in the ship's
way, as one may say, out of the Gulf."
"Isn't this nonsense enough for you?" I asked,
looking confidently at the intelligent, quiet face on
which the secret uneasiness in the man's breast
had thrown a transparent veil of care.
Ransome didn't know. He had not given a
thought to the matter. And with a faint smile he
flitted away from me on his never-ending duties,
with his usual guarded activity.
Two more days passed. We had advanced a
little way--a very little way--into the larger space
of the Gulf of Siam. Seizing eagerly upon the
elation of the first command thrown into my lap,
by the agency of Captain Giles, I had yet an uneasy
feeling that such luck as this has got perhaps to be
paid for in some way. I had held, professionally, a
review of my chances. I was competent enough
for that. At least, I thought so. I had a general
sense of my preparedness which only a man pursuing
a calling he loves can know. That feeling
seemed to me the most natural thing in the world.
As natural as breathing. I imagined I could not
have lived without it.
I don't know what I expected. Perhaps nothing
else than that special intensity of existence which is
the quintessence of youthful aspirations. Whatever
I expected I did not expect to be beset by
hurricanes. I knew better than that. In the Gulf
of Siam there are no hurricanes. But neither did I
expect to find myself bound hand and foot to the
hopeless extent which was revealed to me as the
days went on.
Not that the evil spell held us always motionless.
Mysterious currents drifted us here and there, with
a stealthy power made manifest only by the changing
vistas of the islands fringing the east shore of
the Gulf. And there were winds, too, fitful and
deceitful. They raised hopes only to dash them
into the bitterest disappointment, promises of
advance ending in lost ground, expiring in sighs,
dying into dumb stillness in which the currents
had it all their own way--their own inimical
The island of Koh-ring, a great, black, upheaved
ridge amongst a lot of tiny islets, lying
upon the glassy water like a triton amongst minnows,
seemed to be the centre of the fatal circle. It
seemed impossible to get away from it. Day after
day it remained in sight. More than once, in a
favourable breeze, I would take its bearings in the
fast-ebbing twilight, thinking that it was for the
last time. Vain hope. A night of fitful airs would
undo the gains of temporary favour, and the rising
sun would throw out the black relief of Koh-ring
looking more barren, inhospitable, and grim than ever.
"It's like being bewitched, upon my word," I
said once to Mr. Burns, from my usual position in
the doorway.
He was sitting up in his bed-place. He was
progressing toward the world of living men; if he
could hardly have been said to have rejoined it yet.
He nodded to me his frail and bony head in a
wisely mysterious assent.
"Oh, yes, I know what you mean," I said.
"But you cannot expect me to believe that a dead
man has the power to put out of joint the meteorology
of this part of the world. Though indeed
it seems to have gone utterly wrong. The land and
sea breezes have got broken up into small pieces.
We cannot depend upon them for five minutes together."
"It won't be very long now before I can come up
on deck," muttered Mr. Burns, "and then we shall
Whether he meant this for a promise to grapple
with supernatural evil I couldn't tell. At any rate,
it wasn't the kind of assistance I needed. On the
other hand, I had been living on deck practically
night and day so as to take advantage of every
chance to get my ship a little more to the southward.
The mate, I could see, was extremely weak
yet, and not quite rid of his delusion, which to me
appeared but a symptom of his disease. At all
events, the hopefulness of an invalid was not to be
discouraged. I said:
"You will be most welcome there, I am sure, Mr.
Burns. If you go on improving at this rate you'll
be presently one of the healthiest men in the ship."
This pleased him, but his extreme emaciation
converted his self-satisfied smile into a ghastly
exhibition of long teeth under the red moustache.
"Aren't the fellows improving, sir?" he asked
soberly, with an extremely sensible expression of
anxiety on his face.
I answered him only with a vague gesture and
went away from the door. The fact was that
disease played with us capriciously very much as
the winds did. It would go from one man to another
with a lighter or heavier touch, which always
left its mark behind, staggering some, knocking
others over for a time, leaving this one, returning
to another, so that all of them had now an invalidish
aspect and a hunted, apprehensive look in their
eyes; while Ransome and I, the only two completely
untouched, went amongst them assiduously
distributing quinine. It was a double fight. The
adverse weather held us in front and the disease
pressed on our rear. I must say that the men were
very good. The constant toil of trimming yards
they faced willingly. But all spring was out of
their limbs, and as I looked at them from the poop
I could not keep from my mind the dreadful impression
that they were moving in poisoned air.
Down below, in his cabin, Mr. Burns had advanced
so far as not only to be able to sit up, but
even to draw up his legs. Clasping them with
bony arms, like an animated skeleton, he emitted
deep, impatient sighs.
"The great thing to do, sir," he would tell me on
every occasion, when I gave him the chance, "the
great thing is to get the ship past 8 d 20' of latitude.
Once she's past that we're all right."
At first I used only to smile at him, though, God
knows, I had not much heart left for smiles. But
at last I lost my patience.
"Oh, yes. The latitude 8 d 20'. That's where
you buried your late captain, isn't it?" Then with
severity: "Don't you think, Mr. Burns, it's about
time you dropped all that nonsense?"
He rolled at me his deep-sunken eyes in a glance
of invincible obstinacy. But for the rest he only
muttered, just loud enough for me to hear, something
about "Not surprised . . . find . . .
play us some beastly trick yet. . . ."
Such passages as this were not exactly wholesome
for my resolution. The stress of adversity
was beginning to tell on me. At the same time, I
felt a contempt for that obscure weakness of my
soul. I said to myself disdainfully that it should
take much more than that to affect in the smallest
degree my fortitude.
I didn't know then how soon and from what unexpected
direction it would be attacked.
It was the very next day. The sun had risen
clear of the southern shoulder of Koh-ring, which
still hung, like an evil attendant, on our port
quarter. It was intensely hateful to my sight.
During the night we had been heading all round the
compass, trimming the yards again and again, to
what I fear must have been for the most part imaginary
puffs of air. Then just about sunrise we
got for an hour an inexplicable, steady breeze, right
in our teeth. There was no sense in it. It fitted
neither with the season of the year nor with the
secular experience of seamen as recorded in books,
nor with the aspect of the sky. Only purposeful
malevolence could account for it. It sent us
travelling at a great pace away from our proper
course; and if we had been out on pleasure sailing
bent it would have been a delightful breeze, with
the awakened sparkle of the sea, with the sense of
motion and a feeling of unwonted freshness. Then,
all at once, as if disdaining to carry farther the
sorry jest, it dropped and died out completely in
less than five minutes. The ship's head swung
where it listed; the stilled sea took on the polish of a
steel plate in the calm.
I went below, not because I meant to take some
rest, but simply because I couldn't bear to look at
it just then. The indefatigable Ransome was busy
in the saloon. It had become a regular practice
with him to give me an informal health report in
the morning. He turned away from the sideboard
with his usual pleasant, quiet gaze. No shadow
rested on his intelligent forehead.
"There are a good many of them middling bad
this morning, sir," he said in a calm tone.
"What? All knocked out?"
"Only two actually in their bunks, sir, but--"
"It's the last night that has done for them. We
have had to pull and haul all the blessed time."
"I heard, sir. I had a mind to come out and
help only, you know. . . ."
"Certainly not. You mustn't. . . . The
fellows lie at night about the decks, too. It isn't
good for them."
Ransome assented. But men couldn't be looked
after like children. Moreover, one could hardly
blame them for trying for such coolness and such
air as there was to be found on deck. He himself,
of course, knew better.
He was, indeed, a reasonable man. Yet it
would have been hard to say that the others were
not. The last few days had been for us like the
ordeal of the fiery furnace. One really couldn't
quarrel with their common, imprudent humanity
making the best of the moments of relief, when the
night brought in the illusion of coolness and the
starlight twinkled through the heavy, dew-laden
air. Moreover, most of them were so weakened
that hardly anything could be done without everybody
that could totter mustering on the braces.
No, it was no use remonstrating with them. But I
fully believed that quinine was of very great use
I believed in it. I pinned my faith to it. It
would save the men, the ship, break the spell by
its medicinal virtue, make time of no account,
the weather but a passing worry and, like a magic
powder working against mysterious malefices, secure
the first passage of my first command against
the evil powers of calms and pestilence. I looked
upon it as more precious than gold, and unlike gold,
of which there ever hardly seems to be enough anywhere,
the ship had a sufficient store of it. I went
in to get it with the purpose of weighing out doses.
I stretched my hand with the feeling of a man
reaching for an unfailing panacea, took up a fresh
bottle and unrolled the wrapper, noticing as I did
so that the ends, both top and bottom, had come
unsealed. . . .
But why record all the swift steps of the appalling
discovery? You have guessed the truth already.
There was the wrapper, the bottle, and the
white powder inside, some sort of powder! But it
wasn't quinine. One look at it was quite enough.
I remember that at the very moment of picking up
the bottle, before I even dealt with the wrapper, the
weight of the object I had in my hand gave me an
instant premonition. Quinine is as light as feathers;
and my nerves must have been exasperated
into an extraordinary sensibility. I let the bottle
smash itself on the floor. The stuff, whatever it
was, felt gritty under the sole of my shoe. I
snatched up the next bottle and then the next.
The weight alone told the tale. One after another
they fell, breaking at my feet, not because I threw
them down in my dismay, but slipping through my
fingers as if this disclosure were too much for my
It is a fact that the very greatness of a mental
shock helps one to bear up against it by producing
a sort of temporary insensibility. I came out of
the state-room stunned, as if something heavy had
dropped on my head. From the other side of the
saloon, across the table, Ransome, with a duster in
his hand, stared open-mouthed. I don't think that
I looked wild. It is quite possible that I appeared
to be in a hurry because I was instinctively hastening
up on deck. An example this of training become
instinct. The difficulties, the dangers, the
problems of a ship at sea must be met on deck.
To this fact, as it were of nature, I responded
instinctively; which may be taken as a proof that
for a moment I must have been robbed of my
I was certainly off my balance, a prey to impulse,
for at the bottom of the stairs I turned and
flung myself at the doorway of Mr. Burns' cabin.
The wildness of his aspect checked my mental disorder.
He was sitting up in his bunk, his body
looking immensely long, his head drooping a little
sideways, with affected complacency. He flourished,
in his trembling hand, on the end of a forearm
no thicker than a walking-stick, a shining
pair of scissors which he tried before my very eyes
to jab at his throat.
I was to a certain extent horrified; but it was
rather a secondary sort of effect, not really strong
enough to make me yell at him in some such manner
as: "Stop!" . . . "Heavens!" . . .
"What are you doing?"
In reality he was simply overtaxing his returning
strength in a shaky attempt to clip off the thick
growth of his red beard. A large towel was spread
over his lap, and a shower of stiff hairs, like bits of
copper wire, was descending on it at every snip of
the scissors.
He turned to me his face grotesque beyond the
fantasies of mad dreams, one cheek all bushy as if
with a swollen flame, the other denuded and
sunken, with the untouched long moustache on
that side asserting itself, lonely and fierce. And
while he stared thunderstruck, with the gaping
scissors on his fingers, I shouted my discovery at
him fiendishly, in six words, without comment.
I HEARD the clatter of the scissors escaping from
his hand, noted the perilous heave of his whole
person over the edge of the bunk after them, and
then, returning to my first purpose, pursued my
course on the deck. The sparkle of the sea filled
my eyes. It was gorgeous and barren, monotonous
and without hope under the empty curve of the
sky. The sails hung motionless and slack, the
very folds of their sagging surfaces moved no more
than carved granite. The impetuosity of my advent
made the man at the helm start slightly. A
block aloft squeaked incomprehensibly, for what
on earth could have made it do so? It was a
whistling note like a bird's. For a long, long time
I faced an empty world, steeped in an infinity of
silence, through which the sunshine poured and
flowed for some mysterious purpose. Then I heard
Ransome's voice at my elbow.
"I have put Mr. Burns back to bed, sir."
"You have."
"Well, sir, he got out, all of a sudden, but when
he let go the edge of his bunk he fell down. He
isn't light-headed, though, it seems to me."
"No," I said dully, without looking at Ransome.
He waited for a moment, then cautiously, as if not
to give offence: "I don't think we need lose much
of that stuff, sir," he said, "I can sweep it up, every
bit of it almost, and then we could sift the glass out.
I will go about it at once. It will not make the
breakfast late, not ten minutes."
"Oh, yes," I said bitterly. "Let the breakfast
wait, sweep up every bit of it, and then throw
the damned lot overboard!"
The profound silence returned, and when I
looked over my shoulder, Ransome--the intelligent,
serene Ransome--had vanished from my
side. The intense loneliness of the sea acted like
poison on my brain. When I turned my eyes to the
ship, I had a morbid vision of her as a floating
grave. Who hasn't heard of ships found floating,
haphazard, with their crews all dead? I looked at
the seaman at the helm, I had an impulse to speak
to him, and, indeed, his face took on an expectant
cast as if he had guessed my intention. But in the
end I went below, thinking I would be alone with
the greatness of my trouble for a little while. But
through his open door Mr. Burns saw me come down,
and addressed me grumpily: "Well, sir?"
I went in. "It isn't well at all," I said.
Mr. Burns, reestablished in his bed-place, was
concealing his hirsute cheek in the palm of his
"That confounded fellow has taken away the
scissors from me," were the next words he said.
The tension I was suffering from was so great
that it was perhaps just as well that Mr. Burns had
started on his grievance. He seemed very sore
about it and grumbled, "Does he think I am mad,
or what?"
"I don't think so, Mr. Burns," I said. I looked
upon him at that moment as a model of selfpossession.
I even conceived on that account a
sort of admiration for that man, who had (apart
from the intense materiality of what was left of his
beard) come as near to being a disembodied spirit
as any man can do and live. I noticed the preternatural
sharpness of the ridge of his nose, the
deep cavities of his temples, and I envied him. He
was so reduced that he would probably die very
soon. Enviable man! So near extinction--while
I had to bear within me a tumult of suffering
vitality, doubt, confusion, self-reproach, and an indefinite
reluctance to meet the horrid logic of the
situation. I could not help muttering: "I feel as
if I were going mad myself."
Mr. Burns glared spectrally, but otherwise
wonderfully composed.
"I always thought he would play us some deadly trick,"
he said, with a peculiar emphasis on the HE.
It gave me a mental shock, but I had neither the
mind, nor the heart, nor the spirit to argue with
him. My form of sickness was indifference. The
creeping paralysis of a hopeless outlook. So I
only gazed at him. Mr. Burns broke into further
"Eh! What! No! You won't believe it? Well,
how do you account for this? How do you think it
could have happened?"
"Happened?" I repeated dully. "Why, yes,
how in the name of the infernal powers did this
thing happen?"
Indeed, on thinking it out, it seemed incomprehensible
that it should just be like this: the bottles
emptied, refilled, rewrapped, and replaced. A sort
of plot, a sinister attempt to deceive, a thing resembling
sly vengeance, but for what? Or else a
fiendish joke. But Mr. Burns was in possession of
a theory. It was simple, and he uttered it solemnly
in a hollow voice.
"I suppose they have given him about fifteen
pounds in Haiphong for that little lot."
"Mr. Burns!" I cried.
He nodded grotesquely over his raised legs, like
two broomsticks in the pyjamas, with enormous
bare feet at the end.
"Why not? The stuff is pretty expensive in this
part of the world, and they were very short of it in
Tonkin. And what did he care? You have not
known him. I have, and I have defied him. He
feared neither God, nor devil, nor man, nor wind,
nor sea, nor his own conscience. And I believe he
hated everybody and everything. But I think he
was afraid to die. I believe I am the only man
who ever stood up to him. I faced him in that
cabin where you live now, when he was sick, and I
cowed him then. He thought I was going to twist
his neck for him. If he had had his way we would
have been beating up against the Nord-East monsoon,
as long as he lived and afterward, too, for ages
and ages. Acting the Flying Dutchman in the
China Sea! Ha! Ha!"
"But why should he replace the bottles like
this?" . . . I began.
"Why shouldn't he? Why should he want to
throw the bottles away? They fit the drawer.
They belong to the medicine chest."
"And they were wrapped up," I cried.
"Well, the wrappers were there. Did it from
habit, I suppose, and as to refilling, there is always
a lot of stuff they send in paper parcels that burst
after a time. And then, who can tell? I suppose
you didn't taste it, sir? But, of course, you are
sure. . . ."
"No," I said. "I didn't taste it. It is all overboard
Behind me, a soft, cultivated voice said: "I have
tasted it. It seemed a mixture of all sorts, sweetish,
saltish, very horrible."
Ransome, stepping out of the pantry, had been
listening for some time, as it was very excusable
in him to do.
"A dirty trick," said Mr. Burns. "I always
said he would."
The magnitude of my indignation was unbounded.
And the kind, sympathetic doctor, too.
The only sympathetic man I ever knew . . .
instead of writing that warning letter, the very refinement
of sympathy, why didn't the man make a
proper inspection? But, as a matter of fact, it was
hardly fair to blame the doctor. The fittings were
in order and the medicine chest is an officially arranged
affair. There was nothing really to arouse
the slightest suspicion. The person I could never
forgive was myself. Nothing should ever be taken
for granted. The seed of everlasting remorse was
sown in my breast.
"I feel it's all my fault," I exclaimed, "mine and
nobody else's. That's how I feel. I shall never
forgive myself."
"That's very foolish, sir," said Mr. Burns fiercely.
And after this effort he fell back exhausted on
his bed. He closed his eyes, he panted; this affair,
this abominable surprise had shaken him up, too.
As I turned away I perceived Ransome looking at
me blankly. He appreciated what it meant, but
managed to produce his pleasant, wistful smile.
Then he stepped back into his pantry, and I rushed
up on deck again to see whether there was any
wind, any breath under the sky, any stir of the air,
any sign of hope. The deadly stillness met me
again. Nothing was changed except that there
was a different man at the wheel. He looked ill.
His whole figure drooped, and he seemed rather to
cling to the spokes than hold them with a controlling
grip. I said to him:
"You are not fit to be here."
"I can manage, sir," he said feebly.
As a matter of fact, there was nothing for him to do.
The ship had no steerage way. She lay with her
head to the westward, the everlasting Koh-ring
visible over the stern, with a few small islets, black
spots in the great blaze, swimming before my
troubled eyes. And but for those bits of land there
was no speck on the sky, no speck on the water, no
shape of vapour, no wisp of smoke, no sail, no boat,
no stir of humanity, no sign of life, nothing!
The first question was, what to do? What could
one do? The first thing to do obviously was to tell
the men. I did it that very day. I wasn't going
to let the knowledge simply get about. I would
face them. They were assembled on the quarterdeck
for the purpose. Just before I stepped out to
speak to them I discovered that life could hold
terrible moments. No confessed criminal had ever
been so oppressed by his sense of guilt. This is
why, perhaps, my face was set hard and my voice
curt and unemotional while I made my declaration
that I could do nothing more for the sick in the way
of drugs. As to such care as could be given them
they knew they had had it.
I would have held them justified in tearing me
limb from limb. The silence which followed upon
my words was almost harder to bear than the
angriest uproar. I was crushed by the infinite
depth of its reproach. But, as a matter of fact, I
was mistaken. In a voice which I had great difficulty
in keeping firm, I went on: "I suppose, men,
you have understood what I said, and you know
what it means."
A voice or two were heard: "Yes, sir. . . . We
They had kept silent simply because they
thought that they were not called to say anything;
and when I told them that I intended to run into
Singapore and that the best chance for the ship
and the men was in the efforts all of us, sick and
well, must make to get her along out of this, I received
the encouragement of a low assenting murmur
and of a louder voice exclaiming: "Surely
there is a way out of this blamed hole."
Here is an extract from the notes I wrote at the time.
"We have lost Koh-ring at last. For many days
now I don't think I have been two hours below altogether.
I remain on deck, of course, night and
day, and the nights and the days wheel over us in
succession, whether long or short, who can say?
All sense of time is lost in the monotony of expectation,
of hope, and of desire--which is only
one: Get the ship to the southward! Get the ship
to the southward! The effect is curiously mechanical;
the sun climbs and descends, the night
swings over our heads as if somebody below the
horizon were turning a crank. It is the prettiest,
the most aimless! . . . and all through that
miserable performance I go on, tramping, tramping
the deck. How many miles have I walked on
the poop of that ship! A stubborn pilgrimage of
sheer restlessness, diversified by short excursions
below to look upon Mr. Burns. I don't know
whether it is an illusion, but he seems to become
more substantial from day to day. He doesn't say
much, for, indeed, the situation doesn't lend itself
to idle remarks. I notice this even with the men as
I watch them moving or sitting about the decks.
They don't talk to each other. It strikes me that
if there exists an invisible ear catching the whispers
of the earth, it will find this ship the most silent
spot on it. . . .
"No, Mr. Burns has not much to say to me. He
sits in his bunk with his beard gone, his moustaches
flaming, and with an air of silent determination on
his chalky physiognomy. Ransome tells me he
devours all the food that is given him to the last
scrap, but that, apparently, he sleeps very little.
Even at night, when I go below to fill my pipe, I
notice that, though dozing flat on his back, he
still looks very determined. From the side glance
he gives me when awake it seems as though he were
annoyed at being interrupted in some arduous
mental operation; and as I emerge on deck the
ordered arrangement of the stars meets my eye, unclouded,
infinitely wearisome. There they are:
stars, sun, sea, light, darkness, space, great waters;
the formidable Work of the Seven Days, into which
mankind seems to have blundered unbidden. Or
else decoyed. Even as I have been decoyed into
this awful, this death-haunted command. . . ."
The only spot of light in the ship at night was
that of the compass-lamps, lighting up the faces of
the succeeding helmsmen; for the rest we were lost
in the darkness, I walking the poop and the men
lying about the decks. They were all so reduced
by sickness that no watches could be kept. Those
who were able to walk remained all the time on
duty, lying about in the shadows of the main deck,
till my voice raised for an order would bring them
to their enfeebled feet, a tottering little group, moving
patently about the ship, with hardly a murmur,
a whisper amongst them all. And every
time I had to raise my voice it was with a pang of
remorse and pity.
Then about four o'clock in the morning a light
would gleam forward in the galley. The unfailing
Ransome with the uneasy heart, immune, serene,
and active, was getting ready for the early coffee for
the men. Presently he would bring me a cup up
on the poop, and it was then that I allowed myself
to drop into my deck chair for a couple of hours of
real sleep. No doubt I must have been snatching
short dozes when leaning against the rail for a moment
in sheer exhaustion; but, honestly, I was not
aware of them, except in the painful form of convulsive
starts that seemed to come on me even
while I walked. From about five, however, until
after seven I would sleep openly under the fading
I would say to the helmsman: "Call me at
need," and drop into that chair and close my eyes,
feeling that there was no more sleep for me on
earth. And then I would know nothing till, some
time between seven and eight, I would feel a touch
on my shoulder and look up at Ransome's face,
with its faint, wistful smile and friendly, gray
eyes, as though he were tenderly amused at my
slumbers. Occasionally the second mate would
come up and relieve me at early coffee time. But
it didn't really matter. Generally it was a dead
calm, or else faint airs so changing and fugitive
that it really wasn't worth while to touch a brace
for them. If the air steadied at all the seaman at
the helm could be trusted for a warning shout:
"Ship's all aback, sir!" which like a trumpetcall
would make me spring a foot above the deck.
Those were the words which it seemed to me would
have made me spring up from eternal sleep. But
this was not often. I have never met since such
breathless sunrises. And if the second mate happened
to be there (he had generally one day in
three free of fever) I would find him sitting on the
skylight half senseless, as it were, and with an
idiotic gaze fastened on some object near by--a
rope, a cleat, a belaying pin, a ringbolt.
That young man was rather troublesome. He
remained cubbish in his sufferings. He seemed to
have become completely imbecile; and when the return
of fever drove him to his cabin below, the next
thing would be that we would miss him from there.
The first time it happened Ransome and I were
very much alarmed. We started a quiet search
and ultimately Ransome discovered him curled up
in the sail-locker, which opened into the lobby by a
sliding door. When remonstrated with, he muttered
sulkily, "It's cool in there." That wasn't
true. It was only dark there.
The fundamental defects of his face were not improved
by its uniform livid hue. The disease disclosed
its low type in a startling way. It was not
so with many of the men. The wastage of illhealth
seemed to idealise the general character of
the features, bringing out the unsuspected nobility
of some, the strength of others, and in one case revealing
an essentially comic aspect. He was a
short, gingery, active man with a nose and chin of
the Punch type, and whom his shipmates called
"Frenchy." I don't know why. He may have
been a Frenchman, but I have never heard him
utter a single word in French.
To see him coming aft to the wheel comforted
one. The blue dungaree trousers turned up the
calf, one leg a little higher than the other, the clean
check shirt, the white canvas cap, evidently made
by himself, made up a whole of peculiar smartness,
and the persistent jauntiness of his gait, even, poor
fellow, when he couldn't help tottering, told of his
invincible spirit. There was also a man called
Gambril. He was the only grizzled person in the
ship. His face was of an austere type. But if I remember
all their faces, wasting tragically before my
eyes, most of their names have vanished from my
The words that passed between us were few and
puerile in regard of the situation. I had to force
myself to look them in the face. I expected to
meet reproachful glances. There were none. The
expression of suffering in their eyes was indeed
hard enough to bear. But that they couldn't help.
For the rest, I ask myself whether it was the temper
of their souls or the sympathy of their imagination
that made them so wonderful, so worthy of my undying
For myself, neither my soul was highly tempered,
nor my imagination properly under control. There
were moments when I felt, not only that I would go
mad, but that I had gone mad already; so that I
dared not open my lips for fear of betraying myself
by some insane shriek. Luckily I had only orders
to give, and an order has a steadying influence upon
him who has to give it. Moreover, the seaman,
the officer of the watch, in me was sufficiently sane.
I was like a mad carpenter making a box.
Were he ever so convinced that he was King of
Jerusalem, the box he would make would be a sane
box. What I feared was a shrill note escaping me
involuntarily and upsetting my balance. Luckily,
again, there was no necessity to raise one's voice.
The brooding stillness of the world seemed sensitive
to the slightest sound, like a whispering gallery.
The conversational tone would almost carry a
word from one end of the ship to the other. The
terrible thing was that the only voice that I ever
heard was my own. At night especially it reverberated
very lonely amongst the planes of the unstirring
Mr. Burns, still keeping to his bed with that air
of secret determination, was moved to grumble at
many things. Our interviews were short fiveminute
affairs, but fairly frequent. I was everlastingly
diving down below to get a light, though I did
not consume much tobacco at that time. The pipe
was always going out; for in truth my mind was not
composed enough to enable me to get a decent
smoke. Likewise, for most of the time during the
twenty-four hours I could have struck matches on
deck and held them aloft till the flame burnt my
fingers. But I always used to run below. It was
a change. It was the only break in the incessant
strain; and, of course, Mr. Burns through the open
door could see me come in and go out every time.
With his knees gathered up under his chin and
staring with his greenish eyes over them, he was a
weird figure, and with my knowledge of the crazy
notion in his head, not a very attractive one for me.
Still, I had to speak to him now and then, and one
day he complained that the ship was very silent.
For hours and hours, he said, he was lying there, not
hearing a sound, till he did not know what to do
with himself.
"When Ransome happens to be forward in his
galley everything's so still that one might think
everybody in the ship was dead," he grumbled.
"The only voice I do hear sometimes is yours, sir,
and that isn't enough to cheer me up. What's the
matter with the men? Isn't there one left that can
sing out at the ropes?"
"Not one, Mr. Burns," I said. "There is no
breath to spare on board this ship for that. Are
you aware that there are times when I can't muster
more than three hands to do anything?"
He asked swiftly but fearfully:
"Nobody dead yet, sir?"
"It wouldn't do," Mr. Burns declared forcibly.
"Mustn't let him. If he gets hold of one he will
get them all."
I cried out angrily at this. I believe I even
swore at the disturbing effect of these words.
They attacked all the self-possession that was left
to me. In my endless vigil in the face of the enemy
I had been haunted by gruesome images enough. I
had had visions of a ship drifting in calms and
swinging in light airs, with all her crew dying slowly
about her decks. Such things had been known to
Mr. Burns met my outburst by a mysterious
"Look here," I said. "You don't believe yourself
what you say. You can't. It's impossible.
It isn't the sort of thing I have a right to expect
from you. My position's bad enough without
being worried with your silly fancies."
He remained unmoved. On account of the way
in which the light fell on his head I could not be
sure whether he had smiled faintly or not. I
changed my tone.
"Listen," I said. "It's getting so desperate
that I had thought for a moment, since we can't
make our way south, whether I wouldn't try to
steer west and make an attempt to reach the mailboat
track. We could always get some quinine
from her, at least. What do you think?"
He cried out: "No, no, no. Don't do that, sir.
You mustn't for a moment give up facing that old
ruffian. If you do he will get the upper hand of
I left him. He was impossible. It was like a
case of possession. His protest, however, was
essentially quite sound. As a matter of fact, my
notion of heading out west on the chance of sighting
a problematical steamer could not bear calm
examination. On the side where we were we had
enough wind, at least from time to time, to struggle
on toward the south. Enough, at least, to keep
hope alive. But suppose that I had used those
capricious gusts of wind to sail away to the westward,
into some region where there was not a
breath of air for days on end, what then? Perhaps
my appalling vision of a ship floating with a dead
crew would become a reality for the discovery
weeks afterward by some horror-stricken mariners.
That afternoon Ransome brought me up a cup
of tea, and while waiting there, tray in hand, he remarked
in the exactly right tone of sympathy:
"You are holding out well, sir."
"Yes," I said. "You and I seem to have been
"Forgotten, sir?"
"Yes, by the fever-devil who has got on board
this ship," I said.
Ransome gave me one of his attractive, intelligent,
quick glances and went away with the tray.
It occurred to me that I had been talking somewhat
in Mr. Burns' manner. It annoyed me. Yet
often in darker moments I forgot myself into an
attitude toward our troubles more fit for a contest
against a living enemy.
Yes. The fever-devil had not laid his hand yet
either on Ransome or on me. But he might at any
time. It was one of those thoughts one had to
fight down, keep at arm's length at any cost. It
was unbearable to contemplate the possibility of
Ransome, the housekeeper of the ship, being laid
low. And what would happen to my command if
I got knocked over, with Mr. Burns too weak to
stand without holding on to his bed-place and the
second mate reduced to a state of permanent imbecility?
It was impossible to imagine, or rather,
it was only too easy to imagine.
I was alone on the poop. The ship having no
steerage way, I had sent the helmsman away to sit
down or lie down somewhere in the shade. The
men's strength was so reduced that all unnecessary
calls on it had to be avoided. It was the austere
Gambril with the grizzly beard. He went away
readily enough, but he was so weakened by repeated
bouts of fever, poor fellow, that in order to
get down the poop ladder he had to turn sideways
and hang on with both hands to the brass rail. It
was just simply heart-breaking to watch. Yet he
was neither very much worse nor much better than
most of the half-dozen miserable victims I could
muster up on deck.
It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several
days in succession low clouds had appeared in the
distance, white masses with dark convolutions resting
on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet
all the time changing their aspects subtly. Toward
evening they vanished as a rule. But this
day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and
smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank
down. The punctual and wearisome stars reappeared
over our mastheads, but the air remained
stagnant and oppressive.
The unfailing Ransome lighted the binnaclelamps
and glided, all shadowy, up to me.
"Will you go down and try to eat something,
sir?" he suggested.
His low voice startled me. I had been standing
looking out over the rail, saying nothing, feeling
nothing, not even the weariness of my limbs, overcome
by the evil spell.
"Ransome," I asked abruptly, "how long have I
been on deck? I am losing the notion of time."
"Twelve days, sir," he said, "and it's just a
fortnight since we left the anchorage."
His equable voice sounded mournful somehow.
He waited a bit, then added: "It's the first time
that it looks as if we were to have some rain."
I noticed then the broad shadow on the horizon,
extinguishing the low stars completely, while those
overhead, when I looked up, seemed to shine down
on us through a veil of smoke.
How it got there, how it had crept up so high, I
couldn't say. It had an ominous appearance. The
air did not stir. At a renewed invitation from
Ransome I did go down into the cabin to--in his
own words--"try and eat something." I don't
know that the trial was very successful. I suppose
at that period I did exist on food in the usual
way; but the memory is now that in those days life
was sustained on invincible anguish, as a sort of
infernal stimulant exciting and consuming at the
same time.
It's the only period of my life in which I attempted
to keep a diary. No, not the only one.
Years later, in conditions of moral isolation, I did
put down on paper the thoughts and events of a
score of days. But this was the first time. I don't
remember how it came about or how the pocketbook
and the pencil came into my hands. It's inconceivable
that I should have looked for them on
purpose. I suppose they saved me from the crazy
trick of talking to myself.
Strangely enough, in both cases I took to that
sort of thing in circumstances in which I did not expect,
in colloquial phrase, "to come out of it."
Neither could I expect the record to outlast me.
This shows that it was purely a personal need for
intimate relief and not a call of egotism.
Here I must give another sample of it, a few detached
lines, now looking very ghostly to my own
eyes, out of the part scribbled that very evening:
"There is something going on in the sky like
a decomposition; like a corruption of the air,
which remains as still as ever. After all, mere
clouds, which may or may not hold wind or rain.
Strange that it should trouble me so. I feel as if all
my sins had found me out. But I suppose the
trouble is that the ship is still lying motionless, not
under command; and that I have nothing to do to
keep my imagination from running wild amongst
the disastrous images of the worst that may befall
us. What's going to happen? Probably nothing.
Or anything. It may be a furious squall coming,
butt end foremost. And on deck there are five
men with the vitality and the strength, of say, two.
We may have all our sails blown away. Every
stitch of canvas has been on her since we broke
ground at the mouth of the Mei-nam, fifteen days
ago . . . or fifteen centuries. It seems to me
that all my life before that momentous day is infinitely
remote, a fading memory of light-hearted
youth, something on the other side of a shadow.
Yes, sails may very well be blown away. And that
would be like a death sentence on the men. We
haven't strength enough on board to bend another
suit; incredible thought, but it is true. Or we may
even get dismasted. Ships have been dismasted in
squalls simply because they weren't handled quick
enough, and we have no power to whirl the yards
around. It's like being bound hand and foot preparatory
to having one's throat cut. And what
appals me most of all is that I shrink from going on
deck to face it. It's due to the ship, it's due to the
men who are there on deck--some of them, ready
to put out the last remnant of their strength at a
word from me. And I am shrinking from it. From
the mere vision. My first command. Now I
understand that strange sense of insecurity in my
past. I always suspected that I might be no good.
And here is proof positive. I am shirking it. I
am no good."
At that moment, or, perhaps, the moment after,
I became aware of Ransome standing in the cabin.
Something in his expression startled me. It had a
meaning which I could not make out. I exclaimed:
"Somebody's dead."
It was his turn then to look startled.
"Dead? Not that I know of, sir. I have been in
the forecastle only ten minutes ago and there was
no dead man there then."
"You did give me a scare," I said.
His voice was extremely pleasant to listen to.
He explained that he had come down below to close
Mr. Burns' port in case it should come on to rain.
"He did not know that I was in the cabin," he added.
"How does it look outside?" I asked him.
"Very black, indeed, sir. There is something in
it for certain."
"In what quarter?"
"All round, sir."
I repeated idly: "All round. For certain," with
my elbows on the table.
Ransome lingered in the cabin as if he had something
to do there, but hesitated about doing it. I
said suddenly:
"You think I ought to be on deck?"
He answered at once but without any particular
emphasis or accent: "I do, sir."
I got to my feet briskly, and he made way for me
to go out. As I passed through the lobby I heard
Mr. Burns' voice saying:
"Shut the door of my room, will you, steward?"
And Ransome's rather surprised: "Certainly, sir."
I thought that all my feelings had been dulled
into complete indifference. But I found it as trying
as ever to be on deck. The impenetrable blackness
beset the ship so close that it seemed that by
thrusting one's hand over the side one could touch
some unearthly substance. There was in it an
effect of inconceivable terror and of inexpressible
mystery. The few stars overhead shed a dim light
upon the ship alone, with no gleams of any kind
upon the water, in detached shafts piercing an atmosphere
which had turned to soot. It was something
I had never seen before, giving no hint of the
direction from which any change would come, the
closing in of a menace from all sides.
There was still no man at the helm. The immobility
of all things was perfect. If the air had
turned black, the sea, for all I knew, might have
turned solid. It was no good looking in any direction,
watching for any sign, speculating upon
the nearness of the moment. When the time came
the blackness would overwhelm silently the bit of
starlight falling upon the ship, and the end of all
things would come without a sigh, stir, or murmur
of any kind, and all our hearts would cease to beat
like run-down clocks.
It was impossible to shake off that sense of
finality. The quietness that came over me was
like a foretaste of annihilation. It gave me a sort
of comfort, as though my soul had become suddenly
reconciled to an eternity of blind stillness.
The seaman's instinct alone survived whole in
my moral dissolution. I descended the ladder to
the quarter-deck. The starlight seemed to die out
before reaching that spot, but when I asked
quietly: "Are you there, men?" my eyes made out
shadow forms starting up around me, very few,
very indistinct; and a voice spoke: "All here, sir."
Another amended anxiously:
"All that are any good for anything, sir."
Both voices were very quiet and unringing; without
any special character of readiness or discouragement.
Very matter-of-fact voices.
"We must try to haul this mainsail close up," I said.
The shadows swayed away from me without a
word. Those men were the ghosts of themselves,
and their weight on a rope could be no more than
the weight of a bunch of ghosts. Indeed, if ever a
sail was hauled up by sheer spiritual strength it
must have been that sail, for, properly speaking,
there was not muscle enough for the task in the
whole ship let alone the miserable lot of us on deck.
Of course, I took the lead in the work myself.
They wandered feebly after me from rope to rope,
stumbling and panting. They toiled like Titans.
We were half-an-hour at it at least, and all the time
the black universe made no sound. When the last
leech-line was made fast, my eyes, accustomed to
the darkness, made out the shapes of exhausted
men drooping over the rails, collapsed on hatches.
One hung over the after-capstan, sobbing for
breath, and I stood amongst them like a tower of
strength, impervious to disease and feeling only the
sickness of my soul. I waited for some time fighting
against the weight of my sins, against my sense
of unworthiness, and then I said:
"Now, men, we'll go aft and square the mainyard.
That's about all we can do for the ship; and for the
rest she must take her chance."
AS WE all went up it occurred to me that there
ought to be a man at the helm. I raised my voice
not much above a whisper, and, noiselessly, an uncomplaining
spirit in a fever-wasted body appeared
in the light aft, the head with hollow eyes illuminated
against the blackness which had swallowed
up our world--and the universe. The bared forearm
extended over the upper spokes seemed to
shine with a light of its own.
I murmured to that luminous appearance:
"Keep the helm right amidships."
It answered in a tone of patient suffering:
"Right amidships, sir."
Then I descended to the quarter-deck. It was
impossible to tell whence the blow would come. To
look round the ship was to look into a bottomless,
black pit. The eye lost itself in inconceivable
I wanted to ascertain whether the ropes had been
picked up off the deck. One could only do that by
feeling with one's feet. In my cautious progress I
came against a man in whom I recognized
Ransome. He possessed an unimpaired physical
solidity which was manifest to me at the contact.
He was leaning against the quarter-deck capstan
and kept silent. It was like a revelation. He was
the collapsed figure sobbing for breath I had noticed
before we went on the poop.
"You have been helping with the mainsail!" I
exclaimed in a low tone.
"Yes, sir," sounded his quiet voice.
"Man! What were you thinking of? You
mustn't do that sort of thing."
After a pause he assented: "I suppose I
mustn't." Then after another short silence he
added: "I am all right now," quickly, between the
tell-tale gasps.
I could neither hear nor see anybody else; but
when I spoke up, answering sad murmurs filled the
quarter-deck, and its shadows seemed to shift here
and there. I ordered all the halyards laid down on
deck clear for running.
"I'll see to that, sir," volunteered Ransome in
his natural, pleasant tone, which comforted one
and aroused one's compassion, too, somehow.
That man ought to have been in his bed, resting,
and my plain duty was to send him there. But
perhaps he would not have obeyed me; I had not
the strength of mind to try. All I said was:
"Go about it quietly, Ransome."
Returning on the poop I approached Gambril.
His face, set with hollow shadows in the light,
looked awful, finally silenced. I asked him how
he felt, but hardly expected an answer. Therefore,
I was astonished at his comparative loquacity.
"Them shakes leaves me as weak as a kitten,
sir," he said, preserving finely that air of unconsciousness
as to anything but his business a helmsman
should never lose. "And before I can pick
up my strength that there hot fit comes along and
knocks me over again."
He sighed. There was no reproach in his tone,
but the bare words were enough to give me a horrible
pang of self-reproach. It held me dumb for a
time. When the tormenting sensation had passed
off I asked:
"Do you feel strong enough to prevent the rudder
taking charge if she gets sternway on her? It
wouldn't do to get something smashed about the
steering-gear now. We've enough difficulties to
cope with as it is."
He answered with just a shade of weariness that
he was strong enough to hang on. He could
promise me that she shouldn't take the wheel out
of his hands. More he couldn't say.
At that moment Ransome appeared quite close
to me, stepping out of the darkness into visibility
suddenly, as if just created with his composed face
and pleasant voice.
Every rope on deck, he said, was laid down clear
for running, as far as one could make certain
by feeling. It was impossible to see anything.
Frenchy had stationed himself forward. He said
he had a jump or two left in him yet.
Here a faint smile altered for an instant the
clear, firm design of Ransome's lips. With his
serious clear, gray eyes, his serene temperament--
he was a priceless man altogether. Soul as firm
as the muscles of his body.
He was the only man on board (except me, but I
had to preserve my liberty of movement) who had
a sufficiency of muscular strength to trust to. For
a moment I thought I had better ask him to take
the wheel. But the dreadful knowledge of the
enemy he had to carry about him made me hesitate.
In my ignorance of physiology it occurred
to me that he might die suddenly, from excitement,
at a critical moment.
While this gruesome fear restrained the ready
words on the tip of my tongue, Ransome stepped
back two paces and vanished from my sight.
At once an uneasiness possessed me, as if some
support had been withdrawn. I moved forward,
too, outside the circle of light, into the darkness
that stood in front of me like a wall. In one stride
I penetrated it. Such must have been the darkness
before creation. It had closed behind me. I
knew I was invisible to the man at the helm.
Neither could I see anything. He was alone, I was
alone, every man was alone where he stood. And
every form was gone, too, spar, sail, fittings, rails;
everything was blotted out in the dreadful smoothness
of that absolute night.
A flash of lightning would have been a relief--I
mean physically. I would have prayed for it if it
hadn't been for my shrinking apprehension of the
thunder. In the tension of silence I was suffering
from it seemed to me that the first crash must turn
me into dust.
And thunder was, most likely, what would happen
next. Stiff all over and hardly breathing,
I waited with a horribly strained expectation.
Nothing happened. It was maddening, but a dull,
growing ache in the lower part of my face made me
aware that I had been grinding my teeth madly
enough, for God knows how long.
It's extraordinary I should not have heard myself
doing it; but I hadn't. By an effort which
absorbed all my faculties I managed to keep my
jaw still. It required much attention, and while
thus engaged I became bothered by curious, irregular
sounds of faint tapping on the deck. They
could be heard single, in pairs, in groups. While
I wondered at this mysterious devilry, I received
a slight blow under the left eye and felt an enormous
tear run down my cheek. Raindrops.
Enormous. Forerunners of something.
Tap. Tap. Tap. . . .
I turned about, and, addressing Gambrel
earnestly, entreated him to "hang on to the wheel."
But I could hardly speak from emotion. The fatal
moment had come. I held my breath. The tapping
had stopped as unexpectedly as it had begun,
and there was a renewed moment of intolerable suspense;
something like an additional turn of the
racking screw. I don't suppose I would have ever
screamed, but I remember my conviction that
there was nothing else for it but to scream.
Suddenly--how am I to convey it? Well, suddenly
the darkness turned into water. This is the
only suitable figure. A heavy shower, a downpour,
comes along, making a noise. You hear its
approach on the sea, in the air, too, I verily believe.
But this was different. With no preliminary
whisper or rustle, without a splash, and even without
the ghost of impact, I became instantaneously
soaked to the skin. Not a very difficult matter,
since I was wearing only my sleeping suit. My
hair got full of water in an instant, water streamed
on my skin, it filled my nose, my ears, my eyes.
In a fraction of a second I swallowed quite a lot
of it.
As to Gambril, he was fairly choked. He
coughed pitifully, the broken cough of a sick man;
and I beheld him as one sees a fish in an aquarium
by the light of an electric bulb, an elusive, phosphorescent
shape. Only he did not glide away.
But something else happened. Both binnaclelamps
went out. I suppose the water forced itself
into them, though I wouldn't have thought that
possible, for they fitted into the cowl perfectly.
The last gleam of light in the universe had gone,
pursued by a low exclamation of dismay from
Gambril. I groped for him and seized his arm.
How startlingly wasted it was.
"Never mind," I said. "You don't want the
light. All you need to do is to keep the wind,
when it comes, at the back of your head. You
"Aye, aye, sir. . . . But I should like to have
a light," he added nervously.
All that time the ship lay as steady as a rock.
The noise of the water pouring off the sails and
spars, flowing over the break of the poop, had
stopped short. The poop scuppers gurgled and
sobbed for a little while longer, and then perfect
silence, joined to perfect immobility, proclaimed
the yet unbroken spell of our helplessness, poised
on the edge of some violent issue, lurking in the
I started forward restlessly. I did not need my
sight to pace the poop of my ill-starred first command
with perfect assurance. Every square foot
of her decks was impressed indelibly on my brain,
to the very grain and knots of the planks. Yet, all
of a sudden, I fell clean over something, landing
full length on my hands and face.
It was something big and alive. Not a dog--
more like a sheep, rather. But there were no
animals in the ship. How could an animal. . . .
It was an added and fantastic horror which I could
not resist. The hair of my head stirred even as I
picked myself up, awfully scared; not as a man is
scared while his judgment, his reason still try to
resist, but completely, boundlessly, and, as it were,
innocently scared--like a little child.
I could see It--that Thing! The darkness, of
which so much had just turned into water, had
thinned down a little. There It was! But I did not
hit upon the notion of Mr. Burns issuing out of the
companion on all fours till he attempted to stand
up, and even then the idea of a bear crossed my
mind first.
He growled like one when I seized him round the
body. He had buttoned himself up into an enormous
winter overcoat of some woolly material, the
weight of which was too much for his reduced state.
I could hardly feel the incredibly thin lath of his
body, lost within the thick stuff, but his growl had
depth and substance: Confounded dump ship with
a craven, tiptoeing crowd. Why couldn't they
stamp and go with a brace? Wasn't there one Godforsaken
lubber in the lot fit to raise a yell on a
"Skulking's no good, sir," he attacked me
directly. "You can't slink past the old murderous
ruffian. It isn't the way. You must go for him
boldly--as I did. Boldness is what you want.
Show him that you don't care for any of his
damned tricks. Kick up a jolly old row."
"Good God, Mr. Burns," I said angrily.
"What on earth are you up to? What do you
mean by coming up on deck in this state?"
"Just that! Boldness. The only way to scare
the old bullying rascal."
I pushed him, still growling, against the rail.
"Hold on to it," I said roughly. I did not know
what to do with him. I left him in a hurry, to go
to Gambril, who had called faintly that he believed
there was some wind aloft. Indeed, my own ears
had caught a feeble flutter of wet canvas, high up
overhead, the jingle of a slack chain sheet. . . .
These were eerie, disturbing, alarming sounds in
the dead stillness of the air around me. All the
instances I had heard of topmasts being whipped
out of a ship while there was not wind enough on
her deck to blow out a match rushed into my
"I can't see the upper sails, sir," declared
Gambril shakily.
"Don't move the helm. You'll be all right," I
said confidently.
The poor man's nerves were gone. Mine were
not in much better case. It was the moment of
breaking strain and was relieved by the abrupt
sensation of the ship moving forward as if of herself
under my feet. I heard plainly the soughing
of the wind aloft, the low cracks of the upper spars
taking the strain, long before I could feel the least
draught on my face turned aft, anxious and sightless
like the face of a blind man.
Suddenly a louder-sounding note filled our ears,
the darkness started streaming against our bodies,
chilling them exceedingly. Both of us, Gambril
and I, shivered violently in our clinging, soaked
garments of thin cotton. I said to him:
"You are all right now, my man. All you've got
to do is to keep the wind at the back of your head.
Surely you are up to that. A child could steer this
ship in smooth water."
He muttered: "Aye! A healthy child." And I
felt ashamed of having been passed over by the
fever which had been preying on every man's
strength but mine, in order that my remorse might
be the more bitter, the feeling of unworthiness more
poignant, and the sense of responsibility heavier to
The ship had gathered great way on her almost
at once on the calm water. I felt her slipping
through it with no other noise but a mysterious
rustle alongside. Otherwise, she had no motion at
all, neither lift nor roll. It was a disheartening
steadiness which had lasted for eighteen days
now; for never, never had we had wind enough in
that time to raise the slightest run of the sea. The
breeze freshened suddenly. I thought it was high
time to get Mr. Burns off the deck. He worried
me. I looked upon him as a lunatic who would be
very likely to start roaming over the ship and break
a limb or fall overboard.
I was truly glad to find he had remained holding
on where I had left him, sensibly enough. He was,
however, muttering to himself ominously.
This was discouraging. I remarked in a matterof-
fact tone:
"We have never had so much wind as this since
we left the roads."
"There's some heart in it, too," he growled
judiciously. It was a remark of a perfectly sane
seaman. But he added immediately: "It was
about time I should come on deck. I've been
nursing my strength for this--just for this. Do
you see it, sir?"
I said I did, and proceeded to hint that it would
be advisable for him to go below now and take a
His answer was an indignant "Go below! Not if
I know it, sir."
Very cheerful! He was a horrible nuisance. And
all at once he started to argue. I could feel his
crazy excitement in the dark.
"You don't know how to go about it, sir. How
could you? All this whispering and tiptoeing is no
good. You can't hope to slink past a cunning,
wide-awake, evil brute like he was. You never
heard him talk. Enough to make your hair stand
on end. No! No! He wasn't mad. He was no
more mad than I am. He was just downright
wicked. Wicked so as to frighten most people. I
will tell you what he was. He was nothing less
than a thief and a murderer at heart. And do you
think he's any different now because he's dead?
Not he! His carcass lies a hundred fathom under,
but he's just the same . . . in latitude 8 d 20'
He snorted defiantly. I noted with weary resignation
that the breeze had got lighter while he
raved. He was at it again.
"I ought to have thrown the beggar out of the
ship over the rail like a dog. It was only on account
of the men. . . . Fancy having to read the
Burial Service over a brute like that! . . . 'Our
departed brother' . . . I could have laughed.
That was what he couldn't bear. I suppose I am
the only man that ever stood up to laugh at him.
When he got sick it used to scare that . . .
brother. . . . Brother. . . . Departed.
. . . Sooner call a shark brother."
The breeze had let go so suddenly that the way
of the ship brought the wet sails heavily against the
mast. The spell of deadly stillness had caught
us up again. There seemed to be no escape.
"Hallo!" exclaimed Mr. Burns in a startled
voice. "Calm again!"
I addressed him as though he had been sane.
"This is the sort of thing we've been having for
seventeen days, Mr. Burns," I said with intense
bitterness. "A puff, then a calm, and in a moment,
you'll see, she'll be swinging on her heel with
her head away from her course to the devil somewhere."
He caught at the word. "The old dodging
Devil," he screamed piercingly and burst into such
a loud laugh as I had never heard before. It was a
provoking, mocking peal, with a hair-raising,
screeching over-note of defiance. I stepped back,
utterly confounded.
Instantly there was a stir on the quarter-deck;
murmurs of dismay. A distressed voice cried out
in the dark below us: "Who's that gone crazy,
Perhaps they thought it was their captain?
Rush is not the word that could be applied to the
utmost speed the poor fellows were up to; but in
an amazing short time every man in the ship able
to walk upright had found his way on to that poop.
I shouted to them: "It's the mate. Lay hold of
him a couple of you. . . ."
I expected this performance to end in a ghastly
sort of fight. But Mr. Burns cut his derisive
screeching dead short and turned upon them
fiercely, yelling:
"Aha! Dog-gone ye! You've found your
tongues--have ye? I thought you were dumb.
Well, then--laugh! Laugh--I tell you. Now then
--all together. One, two, three--laugh!"
A moment of silence ensued, of silence so profound
that you could have heard a pin drop on the
deck. Then Ransome's unperturbed voice uttered
pleasantly the words:
"I think he has fainted, sir--" The little
motionless knot of men stirred, with low murmurs
of relief. "I've got him under the arms. Get
hold of his legs, some one."
Yes. It was a relief. He was silenced for a
time--for a time. I could not have stood another
peal of that insane screeching. I was sure of it;
and just then Gambril, the austere Gambril, treated
us to another vocal performance. He began to
sing out for relief. His voice wailed pitifully in
the darkness: "Come aft somebody! I can't
stand this. Here she'll be off again directly and I
can't. . . ."
I dashed aft myself meeting on my way a hard
gust of wind whose approach Gambril's ear had
detected from afar and which filled the sails on the
main in a series of muffled reports mingled with the
low plaint of the spars. I was just in time to seize
the wheel while Frenchy who had followed me
caught up the collapsing Gambril. He hauled him
out of the way, admonished him to lie still where he
was, and then stepped up to relieve me, asking
"How am I to steer her, sir?"
"Dead before it for the present. I'll get you a
light in a moment."
But going forward I met Ransome bringing up
the spare binnacle lamp. That man noticed
everything, attended to everything, shed comfort
around him as he moved. As he passed me he remarked
in a soothing tone that the stars were coming
out. They were. The breeze was sweeping
clear the sooty sky, breaking through the indolent
silence of the sea.
The barrier of awful stillness which had encompassed
us for so many days as though we had been
accursed, was broken. I felt that. I let myself
fall on to the skylight seat. A faint white ridge of
foam, thin, very thin, broke alongside. The first for
ages--for ages. I could have cheered, if it hadn't
been for the sense of guilt which clung to all
my thoughts secretly. Ransome stood before me.
"What about the mate," I asked anxiously.
"Still unconscious?"
"Well, sir--it's funny," Ransome was evidently
puzzled. "He hasn't spoken a word, and his eyes
are shut. But it looks to me more like sound sleep
than anything else."
I accepted this view as the least troublesome of
any, or at any rate, least disturbing. Dead faint
or deep slumber, Mr. Burns had to be left to himself
for the present. Ransome remarked suddenly:
"I believe you want a coat, sir."
"I believe I do," I sighed out.
But I did not move. What I felt I wanted were
new limbs. My arms and legs seemed utterly useless,
fairly worn out. They didn't even ache. But
I stood up all the same to put on the coat when
Ransome brought it up. And when he suggested
that he had better now "take Gambril forward," I
"All right. I'll help you to get him down on the
main deck."
I found that I was quite able to help, too. We
raised Gambril up between us. He tried to help
himself along like a man but all the time he was inquiring
"You won't let me go when we come to the ladder?
You won't let me go when we come to the
The breeze kept on freshening and blew true,
true to a hair. At daylight by careful manipulation
of the helm we got the foreyards to run square
by themselves (the water keeping smooth) and
then went about hauling the ropes tight. Of the
four men I had with me at night, I could see now
only two. I didn't inquire as to the others. They
had given in. For a time only I hoped.
Our various tasks forward occupied us for hours,
the two men with me moved so slow and had to
rest so often. One of them remarked that "every
blamed thing in the ship felt about a hundred times
heavier than its proper weight." This was the
only complaint uttered. I don't know what we
should have done without Ransome. He worked
with us, silent, too, with a little smile frozen on his
lips. From time to time I murmured to him:
"Go steady"--"Take it easy, Ransome"--and received
a quick glance in reply.
When we had done all we could do to make
things safe, he disappeared into his galley. Some
time afterward, going forward for a look round, I
caught sight of him through the open door. He
sat upright on the locker in front of the stove, with
his head leaning back against the bulkhead. His
eyes were closed; his capable hands held open the
front of his thin cotton shirt baring tragically
his powerful chest, which heaved in painful and
laboured gasps. He didn't hear me.
I retreated quietly and went straight on to the
poop to relieve Frenchy, who by that time was beginning
to look very sick. He gave me the course
with great formality and tried to go off with a
jaunty step, but reeled widely twice before getting
out of my sight.
And then I remained all alone aft, steering my
ship, which ran before the wind with a buoyant lift
now and then, and even rolling a little. Presently
Ransome appeared before me with a tray. The
sight of food made me ravenous all at once. He
took the wheel while I sat down of the after grating
to eat my breakfast.
"This breeze seems to have done for our crowd,"
he murmured. "It just laid them low--all hands."
"Yes," I said. "I suppose you and I are the
only two fit men in the ship."
"Frenchy says there's still a jump left in him. I
don't know. It can't be much," continued Ransome
with his wistful smile. Good little man that.
But suppose, sir, that this wind flies round when
we are close to the land--what are we going to do
with her?"
"If the wind shifts round heavily after we close
in with the land she will either run ashore or get
dismasted or both. We won't be able to do anything
with her. She's running away with us now.
All we can do is to steer her. She's a ship without a
"Yes. All laid low," repeated Ransome quietly.
"I do give them a look-in forward every now and
then, but it's precious little I can do for them."
"I, and the ship, and every one on board of her,
are very much indebted to you, Ransome," I said
He made as though he had not heard me, and
steered in silence till I was ready to relieve him. He
surrendered the wheel, picked up the tray, and for a
parting shot informed me that Mr. Burns was awake
and seemed to have a mind to come up on deck.
"I don't know how to prevent him, sir. I can't
very well stop down below all the time."
It was clear that he couldn't. And sure enough
Mr. Burns came on deck dragging himself painfully
aft in his enormous overcoat. I beheld him with a
natural dread. To have him around and raving
about the wiles of a dead man while I had to steer a
wildly rushing ship full of dying men was a rather
dreadful prospect.
But his first remarks were quite sensible in meaning
and tone. Apparently he had no recollection
of the night scene. And if he had he didn't betray
himself once. Neither did he talk very much. He
sat on the skylight looking desperately ill at first,
but that strong breeze, before which the last remnant
of my crew had wilted down, seemed to blow a
fresh stock of vigour into his frame with every gust.
One could almost see the process.
By way of sanity test I alluded on purpose to the
late captain. I was delighted to find that Mr.
Burns did not display undue interest in the subject.
He ran over the old tale of that savage
ruffian's iniquities with a certain vindictive gusto
and then concluded unexpectedly:
"I do believe, sir, that his brain began to go a
year or more before he died."
A wonderful recovery. I could hardly spare it
as much admiration as it deserved, for I had to give
all my mind to the steering.
In comparison with the hopeless languour of the
preceding days this was dizzy speed. Two ridges
of foam streamed from the ship's bows; the wind
sang in a strenuous note which under other circumstances
would have expressed to me all the joy
of life. Whenever the hauled-up mainsail started
trying to slat and bang itself to pieces in its gear,
Mr. Burns would look at me apprehensively.
"What would you have me to do, Mr. Burns?
We can neither furl it nor set it. I only wish the
old thing would thrash itself to pieces and be done
with it. That beastly racket confuses me."
Mr. Burns wrung his hands, and cried out suddenly:
"How will you get the ship into harbour, sir,
without men to handle her?"
And I couldn't tell him.
Well--it did get done about forty hours afterward.
By the exorcising virtue of Mr. Burns'
awful laugh, the malicious spectre had been laid,
the evil spell broken, the curse removed. We were
now in the hands of a kind and energetic Providence.
It was rushing us on. . . .
I shall never forget the last night, dark, windy,
and starry. I steered. Mr. Burns, after having
obtained from me a solemn promise to give him a
kick if anything happened, went frankly to sleep on
the deck close to the binnacle. Convalescents
need sleep. Ransome, his back propped against
the mizzen-mast and a blanket over his legs, remained
perfectly still, but I don't suppose he
closed his eyes for a moment. That embodiment
of jauntiness, Frenchy, still under the delusion that
there was a "jump" left in him, had insisted on
joining us; but mindful of discipline, had laid himself
down as far on the forepart of the poop as he
could get, alongside the bucket-rack.
And I steered, too tired for anxiety, too tired for
connected thought. I had moments of grim exultation
and then my heart would sink awfully
at the thought of that forecastle at the other end
of the dark deck, full of fever-stricken men--some
of them dying. By my fault. But never mind.
Remorse must wait. I had to steer.
In the small hours the breeze weakened, then
failed altogether. About five it returned, gentle
enough, enabling us to head for the roadstead.
Daybreak found Mr. Burns sitting wedged up with
coils of rope on the stern-grating, and from the
depths of his overcoat steering the ship with very
white bony hands; while Ransome and I rushed
along the decks letting go all the sheets and halliards
by the run. We dashed next up on to the
forecastle head. The perspiration of labour and
sheer nervousness simply poured off our heads as
we toiled to get the anchors cock-billed. I dared
not look at Ransome as we worked side by side.
We exchanged curt words; I could hear him panting
close to me and I avoided turning my eyes his way
for fear of seeing him fall down and expire in the
act of putting forth his strength--for what? Indeed
for some distinct ideal.
The consummate seaman in him was aroused.
He needed no directions. He knew what to do.
Every effort, every movement was an act of consistent
heroism. It was not for me to look at a man
thus inspired.
At last all was ready and I heard him say:
"Hadn't I better go down and open the compressors now, sir?"
"Yes. Do," I said.
And even then I did not glance his way. After a
time his voice came up from the main deck.
"When you like, sir. All clear on the windlass here."
I made a sign to Mr. Burns to put the helm
down and let both anchors go one after another,
leaving the ship to take as much cable as she
wanted. She took the best part of them both before
she brought up. The loose sails coming aback
ceased their maddening racket above my head. A
perfect stillness reigned in the ship. And while I
stood forward feeling a little giddy in that sudden
peace, I caught faintly a moan or two and the incoherent
mutterings of the sick in the forecastle.
As we had a signal for medical assistance flying
on the mizzen it is a fact that before the ship was
fairly at rest three steam launches from various
men-of-war were alongside; and at least five naval
surgeons had clambered on board. They stood in
a knot gazing up and down the empty main deck,
then looked aloft--where not a man could be seen,
I went toward them--a solitary figure, in a blue
and gray striped sleeping suit and a pipe-clayed cork
helmet on its head. Their disgust was extreme.
They had expected surgical cases. Each one had
brought his carving tools with him. But they soon
got over their little disappointment. In less than
five minutes one of the steam launches was rushing
shoreward to order a big boat and some hospital
people for the removal of the crew. The big
steam pinnace went off to her ship to bring over a
few bluejackets to furl my sails for me.
One of the surgeons had remained on board. He
came out of the forecastle looking impenetrable,
and noticed my inquiring gaze.
"There's nobody dead in there, if that's what
you want to know," he said deliberately. Then
added in a tone of wonder: "The whole crew!"
"And very bad?"
"And very bad," he repeated. His eyes were
roaming all over the ship. "Heavens! What's
"That," I said, glancing aft, "is Mr. Burns, my
chief officer."
Mr. Burns with his moribund head nodding on
the stalk of his lean neck was a sight for any one
to exclaim at. The surgeon asked:
"Is he going to the hospital, too?"
"Oh, no," I said jocosely. "Mr. Burns can't go
on shore till the mainmast goes. I am very proud
of him. He's my only convalescent."
"You look--" began the doctor staring at me.
But I interrupted him angrily:
"I am not ill."
"No. . . . You look queer."
"Well, you see, I have been seventeen days on deck."
"Seventeen! . . . But you must have slept."
"I suppose I must have. I don't know. But I'm certain
that I didn't sleep for the last forty hours."
"Phew! . . . You will be going ashore presently I suppose?"
"As soon as ever I can. There's no end of
business waiting for me there."
The surgeon released my hand, which he had
taken while we talked, pulled out his pocket-book,
wrote in it rapidly, tore out the page and offered
it to me.
"I strongly advise you to get this prescription
made up for yourself ashore. Unless I am much
mistaken you will need it this evening."
"What is it, then?" I asked with suspicion.
"Sleeping draught," answered the surgeon
curtly; and moving with an air of interest toward
Mr. Burns he engaged him in conversation.
As I went below to dress to go ashore, Ransome
followed me. He begged my pardon; he wished,
too, to be sent ashore and paid off.
I looked at him in surprise. He was waiting for
my answer with an air of anxiety.
"You don't mean to leave the ship!" I cried
"I do really, sir. I want to go and be quiet somewhere.
Anywhere. The hospital will do."
"But, Ransome," I said. "I hate the idea of
parting with you."
"I must go," he broke in. "I have a right!"
. . . He gasped and a look of almost savage determination
passed over his face. For an instant
he was another being. And I saw under the worth
and the comeliness of the man the humble reality
of things. Life was a boon to him--this precarious
hard life, and he was thoroughly alarmed about
"Of course I shall pay you off if you wish it," I
hastened to say. "Only I must ask you to remain
on board till this afternoon. I can't leave Mr.
Burns absolutely by himself in the ship for hours."
He softened at once and assured me with a smile
and in his natural pleasant voice that he understood
that very well.
When I returned on deck everything was ready
for the removal of the men. It was the last ordeal
of that episode which had been maturing and tempering
my character--though I did not know it.
It was awful. They passed under my eyes one
after another--each of them an embodied reproach
of the bitterest kind, till I felt a sort of revolt wake
up in me. Poor Frenchy had gone suddenly under.
He was carried past me insensible, his comic
face horribly flushed and as if swollen, breathing
stertorously. He looked more like Mr. Punch than
ever; a disgracefully intoxicated Mr. Punch.
The austere Gambril, on the contrary, had improved
temporarily. He insisted on walking on
his own feet to the rail--of course with assistance
on each side of him. But he gave way to a sudden
panic at the moment of being swung over the side
and began to wail pitifully:
"Don't let them drop me, sir. Don't let them
drop me, sir!" While I kept on shouting to him in
most soothing accents: "All right, Gambril.
They won't! They won't!"
It was no doubt very ridiculous. The bluejackets
on our deck were grinning quietly, while
even Ransome himself (much to the fore in lending
a hand) had to enlarge his wistful smile for a fleeting
I left for the shore in the steam pinnace, and on
looking back beheld Mr. Burns actually standing
up by the taffrail, still in his enormous woolly overcoat.
The bright sunlight brought out his weirdness
amazingly. He looked like a frightful and
elaborate scarecrow set up on the poop of a deathstricken
ship, set up to keep the seabirds from the
Our story had got about already in town and
everybody on shore was most kind. The Marine
Office let me off the port dues, and as there happened
to be a shipwrecked crew staying in the
Home I had no difficulty in obtaining as many men
as I wanted. But when I inquired if I could see
Captain Ellis for a moment I was told in accents of
pity for my ignorance that our deputy-Neptune
had retired and gone home on a pension about
three weeks after I left the port. So I suppose that
my appointment was the last act, outside the
daily routine, of his official life.
It is strange how on coming ashore I was struck
by the springy step, the lively eyes, the strong
vitality of every one I met. It impressed me
enormously. And amongst those I met there was
Captain Giles, of course. It would have been very
extraordinary if I had not met him. A prolonged
stroll in the business part of the town was the
regular employment of all his mornings when he
was ashore.
I caught the glitter of the gold watch-chain
across his chest ever so far away. He radiated
"What is it I hear?" he queried with a "kind
uncle" smile, after shaking hands. "Twenty-one
days from Bangkok?"
"Is this all you've heard?" I said. "You must
come to tiffin with me. I want you to know exactly
what you have let me in for."
He hesitated for almost a minute.
"Well--I will," he said condescendingly at last.
We turned into the hotel. I found to my surprise
that I could eat quite a lot. Then over the
cleared table-cloth I unfolded to Captain Giles the
history of these twenty days in all its professional
and emotional aspects, while he smoked patiently
the big cigar I had given him.
Then he observed sagely:
"You must feel jolly well tired by this time."
"No," I said. "Not tired. But I'll tell you,
Captain Giles, how I feel. I feel old. And I must
be. All of you on shore look to me just a lot of
skittish youngsters that have never known a care
in the world."
He didn't smile. He looked insufferably exemplary.
He declared:
"That will pass. But you do look older--it's a
"Aha!" I said.
"No! No! The truth is that one must not make
too much of anything in life, good or bad."
"Live at half-speed," I murmured perversely.
"Not everybody can do that."
"You'll be glad enough presently if you can keep
going even at that rate," he retorted with his air of
conscious virtue. "And there's another thing: a
man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes,
to his conscience and all that sort of thing.
Why--what else would you have to fight against."
I kept silent. I don't know what he saw in my
face but he asked abruptly:
"Why--you aren't faint-hearted?"
"God only knows, Captain Giles," was my sincere
"That's all right," he said calmly. "You will
learn soon how not to be faint-hearted. A man has
got to learn everything--and that's what so many
of them youngsters don't understand."
"Well, I am no longer a youngster."
"No," he conceded. "Are you leaving soon?"
"I am going on board directly," I said. "I shall
pick up one of my anchors and heave in to halfcable
on the other directly my new crew comes on
board and I shall be off at daylight to-morrow!"
"You will," grunted Captain Giles approvingly.
"that's the way. You'll do."
"What did you think? That I would want to
take a week ashore for a rest?" I said, irritated by
his tone. "There's no rest for me till she's out
in the Indian Ocean and not much of it even
He puffed at his cigar moodily, as if transformed.
"Yes. That's what it amounts to," he said in a
musing tone. It was as if a ponderous curtain had
rolled up disclosing an unexpected Captain Giles.
But it was only for a moment, just the time to let
him add, "Precious little rest in life for anybody.
Better not think of it."
We rose, left the hotel, and parted from each
other in the street with a warm handshake, just as
he began to interest me for the first time in our
The first thing I saw when I got back to the ship
was Ransome on the quarter-deck sitting quietly
on his neatly lashed sea-chest.
I beckoned him to follow me into the saloon
where I sat down to write a letter of recommendation
for him to a man I knew on shore.
When finished I pushed it across the table. "It
may be of some good to you when you leave the
He took it, put it in his pocket. His eyes were
looking away from me--nowhere. His face was
anxiously set.
"How are you feeling now?" I asked.
"I don't feel bad now, sir," he answered stiffly.
"But I am afraid of its coming on. . . ." The
wistful smile came back on his lips for a moment.
"I--I am in a blue funk about my heart,
I approached him with extended hand. His
eyes not looking at me had a strained expression.
He was like a man listening for a warning
"Won't you shake hands, Ransome?" I said
He exclaimed, flushed up dusky red, gave my
hand a hard wrench--and next moment, left alone
in the cabin, I listened to him going up the companion
stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal
fear of starting into sudden anger our common
enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously
within his faithful breast.

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